By Volker Perthes
Far from being an abstract concept, European strategic autonomy has huge practical implications, especially in military and economic terms. Realizing this goal will make Europe more prosperous, secure, and influential in a rapidly changing world.
BERLIN – How, and to what extent, can Europe rely on itself for its wellbeing, security, and international influence? Global power shifts, geopolitical uncertainties, and doubts about the reliability of the United States as an ally have injected new urgency into this debate. Its outcome will be crucial for Europe’s future.
Much of the discussion so far has revolved around different terms. European Union institutions, as well as Germany, tend to prefer “strategic autonomy,” while France favors the concept of “European sovereignty.” But the two concepts are often used interchangeably, and are rarely defined precisely.
In an effort to clarify matters, my colleagues and I recently proposed an operationalized definition of “European strategic autonomy.” We also analyzed the likely obstacles, difficulties, and conflicts should German and European policymakers decide to pursue this goal.
We understand strategic autonomy as the ability to set one’s own priorities and make one’s own decisions in matters of foreign policy and security, together with the institutional, political, and material means to realize these choices, either in cooperation with third parties, or alone if need be. Strategically autonomous actors can set and/or enforce international rules, rather than being subject to other powers’ decisions. In today’s world, even large EU member states such as Germany and France can achieve such autonomy only in concert with their European partners.
In contrast to narrower definitions, our concept of strategic autonomy covers the entire spectrum of foreign and security policies. In addition to defense, it includes economic strength, financial statecraft, diplomacy, intelligence, and civilian conflict management. All of these help to determine Europe’s vulnerabilities and conflict-readiness, not least in defending the rules-based international order that is so vital for the EU and its members.
Autonomy is always relative, not absolute. It is a means to protect and promote one’s values and interests, and not an end in itself. Nor does autonomy imply autarky, isolation, or rejection of alliances. In Europe, partners are essential. For Germany, these mainly comprise all other EU countries as well as other European members of NATO. The EU already offers a stable, permanent framework for action – an indispensable precondition for long-term strategic autonomy. But its members should pursue European strategic autonomy, rather than the strategic autonomy of the EU.
The US will continue to be Europe’s most important external ally and partner. Dealing with the rise of China, and confronting challenges to the rules-based order from Russia and other powers, must remain common transatlantic tasks. But Europe can no longer blindly rely on America to guarantee its own security and the stability of its immediate geostrategic environment. Higher European defense spending has been a demand not only of US President Donald Trump’s administration, but of all US governments since the end of the Cold War.
Europe already enjoys varying levels of strategic autonomy. In trade, the EU has both the means and the will to exert international influence. But in the military sphere, the gap between European ambitions and realities is deep and wide.
Full European autonomy in defense is inconceivable for the foreseeable future. Collective defense will remain the preserve of NATO, and Europe has no wish to decouple itself from the US and its strategic umbrella. Instead, Europe should seek a greater but limited autonomy that allows it to undertake challenging crisis-management and conflict-resolution tasks independently.
The EU also needs to improve its ability to defend the territory and integrity of its member states, particularly those that are not in NATO. This includes defense against hybrid or terrorist attacks that do not trigger immediate action by the Alliance as a whole. To bring this about, the EU and NATO will need to work together rather than against each other. In addition, a post-Brexit United Kingdom must remain closely associated with the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy.
These challenges could be addressed by reinforcing NATO’s European pillar – militarily, through larger and more effective capabilities, and politically, as a format in which European NATO members prepare Alliance decisions. As well as improving Europe’s general action-readiness, this could make Europe a more attractive partner for America and help to build a more symmetrical relationship with the US.
Achieving even this limited, clearly defined degree of European strategic autonomy will require improvements in both military capabilities and the interoperability of European armed forces. And until European countries can further consolidate their production capacities and agree on shared export criteria, strategic autonomy in the defense industry will remain a distant goal.
Europe’s trump cards for achieving strategic autonomy are its economic strength and single market. On matters of regulation, trade, competition, and data protection, the EU is already perceived internationally as a strategic actor. For its member states, the EU is the framework for defending and preserving Europe’s competitiveness.
Yet the EU would be considerably more conflict-ready if it expanded the euro’s role as a global reserve currency. To stabilize the eurozone in the long term, Germany and France will have to reach compromises on issues such as shared liability in the EU’s banking union, the introduction of automatic fiscal stabilizers, and adjusting Germany’s export-heavy economic model.
Far from being an abstract concept, European strategic autonomy has huge practical implications. Realizing this goal will make Europe more prosperous and secure in a rapidly changing world.