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EU strategic autonomy – A perennial pipe dream?

Foreign policy / COMMENTARY
Fraser Cameron

Date: 27/01/2022
Europe has been dependent on the US for its security since 1945. Even with the end of the Cold War, Europe was unwilling to invest in the capabilities to ensure its own common security. The advent of President Trump was a shock to Europe, with Merkel and other leaders calling for greater European strategic autonomy. But Europe’s reaction to the current Russia-Ukraine crisis indicates that the political will is still lacking to achieve this goal.

When José Manuel Barroso arrived in late 2004 to take up his post as President of the Commission, he told a dinner party that he had spoken to all EU heads of government and that only a tiny handful were supportive of US military action in Afghanistan. So why did they all agree to participate asked one guest? Because, said Barroso, the US made clear its continued support for European security would be influenced by how the EU countries contributed in Afghanistan.

This conversation encapsulates the perennial weakness of the EU. It would like to engage in strategic autonomy but prefers security on the cheap, even if it means continued reliance on the US as the present Russia-Ukraine crisis reveals. Commission President von der Leyen wanted a geopolitical Commission but current media commentary is mainly about the EU’s geopolitical irrelevance. There is little sign of this changing as, according to Eurobarometer, a majority of Europeans, and especially Germans, do not consider defence spending a priority. Most Europeans view climate change and pandemics as bigger threats.

The US has been the prime actor in European security for 75 years. Most Europeans accepted this situation during the Cold War as they viewed the Soviet Union as an existential threat. With the collapse of communism there was a brief debate about the future of NATO but the tragedy of the Balkan conflict revealed Europe’s shortcomings. Despite bravado claims about the ‘hour of Europe’ it was American air power that brought an end to the conflicts and a US airbase that was the venue for the Dayton Agreement.

Although the dream of a more autonomous Europe was outlined in the Maastricht Treaty, the tortuous language over defence revealed a fundamental unwillingness of Europeans to take responsibility for their own security. The US was also not particularly supportive of any moves that might undermine the alliance. NATO stayed and Europeans sank back into their preferred option of defence on the cheap. When the East Europeans joined the EU in the 2000s the balance swung further against those calling for EU strategic autonomy.

The American factor

What has changed the debate is American domestic politics. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his open disregard for NATO as well as the Iran nuclear deal sent a shock wave through European capitals. Merkel joined Macron in openly questioning whether Europe could still rely on the US. The American tilt towards a more confrontational stance towards China, confirmed under President Biden, has also reopened the debate on strategic autonomy.

The current US administration, brimming with European specialists, has supported greater European efforts in defence and urged the EU to take more responsibility for regional security. But traditional differences over strategy make this a difficult undertaking. Five EU member states remain neutral while there are open splits on the priority to be afforded to dealing with Russia as opposed to threats from North Africa and the Middle East. The security debate in Germany remains complicated with disagreements in the new coalition over Russia and China. Brexit has made the European task even more difficult as the UK is one of the strongest military powers in Europe.

President Macron has been one of the loudest proponents of strategic autonomy but according to Christoph Heusgen, long-time national security advisor to Merkel and Germany’s UN ambassador, French behaviour belies the rhetoric. At a recent conference, he said that France rarely sought to promote a common EU position in New York.

All eyes are now on the EU’s Strategic Compass, which it is hoped will inject some political will into the debate. But a glance at the draft document reveals again that while it is based on sound analysis there is no desire to confront the essential element of strategic autonomy – namely taking responsibility for Europe’s defence. 

Impact of dependence

What has been the impact of this decades-long, dependence on the US? First, it has prevented the development of genuine strategic thinking in Europe. There are a few, excellent individuals, many of whom turn up wringing their hands at the carousel of security conferences in Europe. But there is little or no collective input. Member states still produce their own national security strategies. The EEAS, which could be the catalyst for common action, has been hamstrung by bureaucratic infighting and lack of political support. Its output of policy papers, including several on European strategy, while good on analysis, are frequently ignored by ministers.

Second, it has meant that Europe has been absent from decision-making circles in Washington – regardless of who is in the White House. As even the pro-EU Biden has shown, when the chips are down, as in the pull-out from Afghanistan, the president takes decisions in the US national interest, without even consulting allies. Indeed, there is widespread evidence that all major decisions during the past 20 years of the Afghanistan conflict were taken in light of how they would impact US domestic politics. The EU was simply ignored.

Third, as a consequence and spelt out starkly by Barroso, Europeans have had to go along with US foreign policy decisions even when they know, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the ‘war on terror’ they are wrong. This has led to European complicity in American violations of their own human rights principles (torture, rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc).

Now or never

There is an argument that it is now or never for the Europeans, especially as there is a pro-EU administration in America which may only be there for one term. But although the EU seems ready to improve its trade defences there is no political will to take the giant leap forward and move towards autonomy in defence.

If the Strategic Compass is agreed, it will improve things at the margins. But we have been here before with pledges to prepare rapid reaction forces and agree common procurement. The results can only be described as disappointing.

Despite the challenges thrown up by the current Russia-Ukraine crisis, it seems the political will is still missing for the EU to really get serious about strategic autonomy. Dependence on the US is thus set to continue.

Fraser Cameron is a senior advisor to the EPC and author of numerous books and articles on EU foreign policy.

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