Can Europe Achieve “Strategic Autonomy?”

Blog | September 05, 2018

Efforts are underway to make Europe a stronger military actor independent of the United States. Can they succeed?


“Europe’s progress on defense must be further consolidated. We have laid the foundations for its strategic autonomy. Several of our partners are realizing that, as part of a balanced transatlantic relationship, Europe is the natural framework for our security and the protection of our borders, given challenges that can only be faced collectively.” Thus, proclaims the French government’s 2017 Defense and National Security Strategic Review. Europe as the natural framework for European security: who could take issue with that?  

In theory, European strategic autonomy makes a lot of sense. It’s not aggressive, it maximizes defense spending and makes Europe a stronger partner to the U.S. But, there—with the word Europe—begins the problem. Which countries would be part of European strategic autonomy efforts? France had hoped that a small coalition of the willing would sign up for a strong PESCO featuring strategic-autonomy qualities. PESCO, the European Union’s (EU) permanent structured cooperation on security and defense, which was activated last December, is the continent’s best bet for strategic autonomy. France’s key partner Germany, however, advocated a less ambitious version. In the end, last year, 25 of the EU’s 28 member states signed up for a decidedly weak PESCO.

Now, Europe has a security and defense policy framework that includes most of the EU—but among its participants are several Central European countries, as well as Sweden and Finland, who are committed transatlanticists. Indeed, despite their differences with the Trump administration, this spring, Sweden and Finland signed a defense cooperation agreement with the Pentagon, and this month, the Swedish government announced it will buy the American-made Patriot missile system. It begs the question: if the EU is not united in working towards strategic autonomy, which body representing “Europe” would do so? There is none.

Given the advantages that European strategic autonomy could deliver, most importantly a coherent voice in defense and security policy backed up by corresponding military capabilities, that’s a shame. But, the complications in trying to implement such autonomy don’t end with the definition of Europe: on the contrary, that’s where it starts.

Within a region—however integrated its member states—national interests compete. And strategic autonomy boils down to issues such as job-creation. Airbus, the best example to date of a pan-European venture, delicately manages factories in the countries participating in the venture, but it’s not an easy arrangement. Which country or countries would benefit if European allies became serious about strategic autonomy? France, with its large domestic defense industry, is a prime candidate. Poland, which typically likes to buy American-made weapons systems, not so much.

But, strategic autonomy is also about fighting capabilities—and this is where the potential lies. The UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (which also includes Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands) is an example of what one might call small-scale strategic autonomy: the 10,000-troop JEF is independent of NATO and can deployed to combat both missions and civil emergencies. The new French-led European Intervention Initiative has a similar profile.

Lastly: public diplomacy. Though PESCO eventually has turned out far more modest than initially planned, the much-trumpeted vision and plans being set in motion made U.S. policymakers nervous. When PESCO was activated, it unsurprisingly provoked fears among U.S. defense executives that their European sales would suffer, as a result. Ambitious measures, like PESCO, risk creating a feeling in Washington that U.S. assistance in defending Europe is no longer needed—which, of course, is false, regardless of who occupies the White House.

We live in an age where grand alliances are faring poorly: the EU, NATO, even the United Nations suffer from considerable tensions. New grandiose ideas are thus unlikely to succeed. Europeans would do well to tackle strategic autonomy with a bit more pragmatism. As for defense equipment, the European defense industry ultimately may become more unified via commercial means—that is, the very real prospect that defense companies will consolidate on their own. After all, large companies are pretty good at M&As.         

Elisabeth Braw is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. She tweets @elisabethbraw.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EastWest Institute

Image: "Strasbourg, Europe" (CC BY 2.0) by TeaMeister