Exploring EU Strategic Autonomy: A New Approach for a World of Uncertainty

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4 mins read

By Quentin Machado

PRESIDENT MACRON HAS ALWAYS championed the European Union’s independence. Personally convinced of a world order founded on multilateralism and the “Strategic Autonomy” of the Old Continent relying on increased capabilities, the first diplomat of France travelled restlessly around the globe to promote his standpoint on all occasions, hosting Russian President Putin for a summer break near the Mediterranean, launching the European Political Community in Prague, dancing in Washington’s balls, discussing partnerships in Beijing, and so on.

Views differ on the subject: sweet dreamer, mere advocate of France’s traditional sovereignty, pragmatic statesman, providential figure of a Union plagued by internal dissensions. One would say there is some truth in each assertion, but President Macron has definitely succeeded to bring the topic in the foreground. Maybe for the simple reason that EU Strategic Autonomy is not a brand-new debate among the Eurocrats.

A strategy for survival

A draft definition of the EU Strategic Autonomy first appeared in the 2016 EU Council’s A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, as the “ability to act autonomously” when it is necessary and with partners each time it is possible. A clearer stance is further provided by the former High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, Federica Mogherini, “This is no time for global policemen and lone warriors.” A slight anger intended to the US, which displaced its main foreign focus to Asia Pacific, while NATO multiplied its operations outside of the EU, slowly abandoning its original character of Europe’s security for controversial Middle Eastern matters in the wake of Washington’s interests.

A realist assertion too. The world order, through globalized economy and conflicts, changes towards multipolarity with China and the emerging regional powers, challenging the top position of the US and its European allies as economic and military leaders. Mogherini’s successor Josep Borrell doesn’t beat around the bush. In a tribune published by the IFRI in 2020, he calls for the awakening of an autonomous EU with enhanced capabilities, beyond inner or outer political tensions, to avoid its relegation as second-tier power, far behind Asia. He pleads for European solidarity to overcome the collective action problem induced by different perceptions of risk between the member states, such as recently sharply proven with the struggle between states’ interests following the invasion of Ukraine, concerning the defence and economic decision-making towards Moscow.

Enhanced capabilities

Far from being solely related to security matters, the Strategic Autonomy principle is meant to be implemented in various clusters. The European Parliament identifies democratic values, multilateralist geopolitics, demography and migration, environment, economy, and information. Despite massive investments in the race for high technologies – space exploration, quantum computing, advanced AI – or in public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, Europe’s vulnerabilities have been continuously highlighted, including migration crisis, high dependence for energy on Russia and supply chains on China, weakness of Eastern, Nordic, and Baltic defences, and no substantial geopolitical power in Middle East conflict resolutions.

“In a world full of uncertainty and with shifting partnerships, the European autonomy is crucial to advance our pawns when conflicts arise.”

Nevertheless, the EU is not defeated. There is room for improvement for each identified vulnerability, and the Strategic Autonomy can rely on powerful, albeit not fully exploited capabilities. The EU remains the third-largest economic power, a key actor in global trade and norms, the first world investor and the first world exporter of manufactured goods and services. The Euro is among the strongest and the most reliable currencies in the world. The Nordic and Western European countries are particularly high-skilled in technological research and development, even more in military and space capabilities, due to their long-run interstate cooperation. Scandinavian initiatives on climate could serve as chief examples for the rest of the EU. 

The thorny question

In these uncertain times, Europe’s security remains a question of paramount importance. Still, coordination problems between the member-states and the sovereignty criteria appear as factors of tension for achieving a European autonomous defence. NATO persists being the tricky question: if countries with powerful military like France fully promote a shift towards an EU integrated defence, vulnerable countries in the North and the Baltics consider the American protectorate unavoidable. In between, multipolarist countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, or Greece would like more distance with the US tutelage without vexing Washington. On average, the EU countries have been particularly worried about the American lone-warrior behaviour, such as the capitulation in Kabul without notifying the Allies or the decision to invade Iraq against the French and the German.

Beyond internal debates, could a European army be possible? Three scenarios seem to emerge: a short-term status quo, US withdrawal, and an enhanced autonomy. The first one is simply acknowledging that even if NATO was qualified “brain dead” by President Macron, it currently serves a purpose in the Eastern front as a deterrent for further Russian invasion. To this extent, the likelihood of its dissolution is low but not zero considering the possible re-election of Mr. Trump next year, who has publicly and repeatedly announced his discontent about NATO’s expensiveness and his will to unilaterally withdraw from NATO to focus on Asia.

Nonetheless, in parallel with NATO, an integrated defence system has already emerged. Since 2009, a “Permanent Structured Cooperation” has coordinated 26 armies under the scrutiny of the High Representative and successfully leads counterterrorist or peacekeeping missions in the vicinity of Europe (Balkans, the Middle East, and North and Sub-Saharan Africa). The Article 42 of the Lisbon Treaty even curiously resembles the NATO Chart. It stipulates the obligation of aid and assistance by all means – except military, which remains a sovereign field – if one of the member states of the EU is attacked. And one must say, Europe can rely on the UK and France for its nuclear safety, even if the credibility of such armies compared to the US is still questionable.

Interest maximisation

Credibility is the final point of this discussion. The EU must take charge of its own faith to look credible in the international arena. A strategic autonomy upon a multipolar, UN-led global order ultimately relies on the most realist assumption. In a world full of uncertainty and with shifting partnerships, the European autonomy is crucial to advance our pawns when conflicts arise, as they will.

By: Quentin Machado

Photography: Pixabay

NB: This article has been discussed with Radio UF. More insights here.

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