23 August 2019

European Union’s strategy autonomy or big powers’ game illusion

Niculae Iancu

For the past two years, the debates on “European Union’s strategic autonomy” were more and more accentuated. Although the concept is nothing new, it emerged at the beginning of the 90’s, promoted in Paris’s global security geopolitical and security documents, the seeming international security paradigm people are facing nowadays made it become, again, the center of attention. The significance of current debates on EU’s strategic autonomy is equally creating hope and concerns among the member states and can also both strengthen and weaken the transatlantic security architecture, which ensured Europe’s defence against major threats after the end of World War II. It all depends on how the idea will be operationalized. Or who will make it happen...

Image source: Mediafax

The imperative for concept’s clarification 

The many signals about reactivating the geopolitical competition between the great powers draws the attention on European Union’s ability to play a relevant role on the international stage, in the years to come. The idea of a "competition between the great powers" or the label "new cold war" animated the debates on global business issues or Atlantic’s two coasts and were all over the foreign and security political agendas of world's great chancelleries, over the last two to three years. The many major security events near Europe's border and especially how security  and defence strategies of credible military powers, ahead with the United States of America, are defining the security developments and call each other security threats at national level, are enough for Brussels to think how the European Union could defend and promote its main security interests in this uncertain future in terms of the great actors, whether they are partners or enemies.  
Any coherent debate on “European strategic autonomy” should start from defining the concept. Even if the term “autonomy” entered the common language of national security long time ago, bringing it in union’s security space would create many semantic ambiguities, which would only make its operationalization be weaker. Dictionaries call autonomy the right of each entity to self-govern, following its own rules, usually across a bigger unity, which also has the central power. Political sciences think absolute autonomy is independency’s synonym, one of state’s main central benchmarks. Using the concept on a super-state level lead to the emergence of ambiguous phrases, such as “European strategic autonomy”, “European strategic culture”, “European sovereignty” or “strategic sovereignty”. These were used in European leaders’ speeches when supporting a large European Union integration in defence and security, which led to another controversial topic, the “European army".  
Debates’ tonality on defining the strategic autonomy concept has been enraged, in recent years, also by US administration’s increasing critics on Europeans’ insufficient contribution to common allied defense. President Trump has taken advantage of almost every presence in Europe, either at NATO summits or "G" formats, or for bilateral meetings, to admonish the German chancellor, the French president or leaders in Brussels for this topic. Moreover, Americans are really confident with EU’s initiatives aimed at strengthening the European defence. State and Defense departments believe that funding procedures for developing new EU military capabilities directly affect US arms producers’ economic interests and could lead to weakening the transatlantic technological and industrial cooperation or even to sanctions imposed by Washington. 
To all these allegations, EU officials’ answer is that there is a conceptual misunderstanding out there. In other words, the US side would misinterpret the purpose and means of developing the common European defence pillar, which aims only at increasing EU's security and defence potential within its traditional transatlantic military cooperation formats. 
Therefore, in order to have a common understanding of new European defense vocabulary essential terms, the strategic autonomy idea must be explained, even if this does not mean, at least up to this stage, that the term should be included in the legal framework of Brussels’ institutions bureaucracies. 
The concept emerges for the first time in the European Parliament Resolution, from 10 March 2010, on the implementation of the European Security Strategy and the Common Security and Defence Policy. Through this resolution, the Strasbourg legislation promoted a "comprehensive model" for "European security", accordingly with the political and security documents of that time, especially those in Washington, wherefore the main "threats and challenges" were: “mass destruction weapons’ proliferation; terrorism and organized crime; regional conflicts; failed states; maritime piracy; small and light weapons, cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines; energy security; the impact of climate change and natural disasters; cyber security; and poverty”. The European Parliament considers that "The Union is making progress in addressing these threats and challenges" and emphasized that "The Union must increase its strategic autonomy by following a strong and effective foreign, security and defence policy, for peace preservation, conflict prevention, strengthening international security, protecting the safety of its citizens and citizens concerned about CSDP missions, defending its global interests and promoting its primordial values, while contributing to enhancing the efficiency of multilateralism to support the international law and promoting  a global respect for human rights and democratic values ". 
Along with the political message, the legislature called for much more concrete measures from the member states regarding the orientation of military acquisitions towards uppermost capabilities for getting strategic autonomy. Draft’s text mentions that the parliament "invites national military procurement agencies to take concrete steps, supported by the European Defense Agency, to make procurement much more European, namely by voluntarily signing a Code of Conduct that could introduce the "preferably in Europe” principle in defence equipment fields where it is important to keep a strategic autonomy and operational sovereignty, from a European perspective, as well as to support European industrial and technological primordiality. 
Starting from this principle, the European Commission sought to give substance to another development that has strategic aspirations, which has been running since 2007: the European Technological and Industrial Defense Base (EDTIB). Although not that well defined, the EDTIB vision aims at creating a European technological and industrial integration level, including profile policies, higher than the national traditional one. The idea did make much progress so far, especially since the national interests of the largest European powers, the economic interests of the largest European armament producers and billion euros budgets are at stake. Moreover, Germany considers that EDTIB, since its emergence, has a high monopolistic tone. Therefore, Berlin’s position has always been that the only acceptable framework for strengthening the European defense industry is "separate competences" and competition based on "competences".
The link between "strategic autonomy" and EDTIB is ensured by Commission’s communication "Towards a more competitive European security and defense sector", of July 24, 2013. "EDTIB is a key element for Europe's ability to ensure its citizens’ security and to - protect their values and interests. Europe must be able to take responsibility for its own security and for international peace and stability in general. To that end, it is necessary a certain strategic autonomy level: in order to be a credible and solid partner, Europe must have the capacity to act and decide without depending on the capabilities of a third party”, mentions the introduction of the document. However, probably to balance all member states’ positions on strategic autonomy, the international valences and the integrative meaning of this concept are immediately blurred in the text, which leaves no room for the fact that "defence is still in the center of national sovereignty, and decisions on military capabilities remain on the member states. However, EU must contribute a lot [to defence]. EU has policies and instruments for implementing structural change and it is the best framework for them to keep an adequate strategic autonomy level.”  
Despite the ambiguities, the strategic autonomy concept continued to be used in European institutions’ documents and the European officials' speeches, especially after the launch of Global Strategy for EU foreign and security policy, June 2016. Federica Mogherini, The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, says in document's preamble that "[in] challenging times, a strong Union is the one which thinks strategically, shares a vision and acts together. [...] Most of our citizens understand that we must collectively take responsibility for our role in the world. [...] Our partners expect the European Union to play a major role, including as a global security provider. [...] The strategy fosters the European Union ambition to achieve strategic autonomy. This is necessary to promote the common interests of our citizens, as well as our values and principles.” The phrase "strategic autonomy" appears four more times in the document, as an argument for strengthening EU's contribution to ensuring security "inside and outside Union’s borders", as a justification for developing joint defense capabilities under NATO's aegis or "autonomously". where it will be needed”, respectively for the development of a European defense industry that is sustainable, innovative and competitive. 
By launching the European Defense Fund, in 2017, the European defense package main initiative, it was made the first legislative test for strategic autonomy's functionality. In Commission's communique on fund's launch from June 7, 2017, it is mentioned that "in order to face the future threats and protect its own citizens, Europe must strengthen its strategic autonomy. It is necessary to develop key technologies in critical areas and strategic capabilities to get the technological leadership. Cooperation at all levels is the only way to meet EU citizens' expectations. By encouraging cooperation, EU can keep maximizing member states' defence investment' profit and quality." From another perspective, the lack of cooperation turns into a "substantial risk against European defense industry' competitiveness and, implicitly, its position in relation to EU's global competitors. Less innovative technical solutions and technical gaps are also a challenge for EU's strategic autonomy and, eventually, a weaker political position for EU in defence”, as evidenced by the Regulation on the launch of the European defence industrial development programme (EDIDP), part of the European Defence Fund. 
EU's strategic autonomy dimensions 
Almost a decade after being mentioned in Union's documents, we can state that the strategic autonomy idea has managed to get a central place within the discourse, narratives and instruments aimed at strengthening European Union's common security. Despite its ambiguities, the strategic autonomy concept tries to give a common meaning to Union's ability to act homogeneously and independently within the international system to promote and defend its own interests, along with partners or autonomously, as mentioned in most of Brussels' foreign and security policy documents. We can state that, given its current meaning, the strategic autonomy concept incorporates four dimensions: political, technological, operational and institutional. 
The political strategic autonomy dimension refers to European Union's ability to make security and defence decisions, without being influenced or impeded in any way by a third party, in any of the stages of the decision-making process. For example, in mid-July, EU member states foreign ministers, gathered within the Foreign Affairs Council, established that Tehran's alleged violations of the "nuclear agreement with Iran", as known in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are not enough to justify re-imposing sanctions or denouncing the agreement, despite the active US policy in this regard. An even bolder decision on Iran and the Middle East’s security, in general, would probably be the establishment of an EU naval force, currently under discussion, to ensure the security of the Persian Gulf shipping lines. This is all the more important since US announced the launch of a mission to that end, wherefore they sent participation invitations to EU Member States, such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, which got refused by Berlin and accepted by London.
Strategic autonomy means much more than member states’ unanimous coordination and agreement on different foreign policy issues. The decisions now are mainly intergovernmental, specific to any international organization. However, the European Union is "more than an international organization and less than a state", as it often appears in most of the European strategic analysis platforms’ texts. In order to avoid such a Cartesian perspective, the right assertion would be "the EU is something other than an international organization or a state." Therefore, the Union must adapt its mechanisms to its special status to give concreteness to strategic autonomy ‘s political dimension, in particular to vitalize its decision-making mechanisms. The legal anchor exists. The strategic autonomy purpose is enshrined in Article 3 of the  European Union Treaty - the Maastricht Treaty- signed in 1992, where it is mentioned that "[in] its relations with the rest of the international community, the Union asserts and promotes its values ​​and interests and contributes to the protection of its citizens”. How they get such a purpose derives from the "attribution principle" which states that "the Union acts only within the limits of the powers assigned to it by the member states". However, giving Brussels responsibilities in foreign and security policy field has been slow and circumspect over the years.   
The cumbersome way of making decisions often raises controversies, speculated by Union’s domestic or foreign forces that oppose integration in order to sow mistrust and suspicion among member states. At the same time, everyone feels power is not fairly distributed across the Union. Often, Berlin or Paris, as was the case of London before Brexit, are seen as centers of power, making the interests of other states, voluntary or transactional, be coagulated. As a result, when German and French interests would match, would be enough for them to make "bold" decisions. Following such reasoning, it seems that now the "minimum" condition necessary to hasten the integration process in term of security and defence is fulfilled. President Macron and Chancellor Merkel have strongly advocated, lately, the need to change the current European foreign and security policy profile. And, in order for EU not to be in a position to say "we have a vision, what do we do with it?", It will have to find the optimal "institutional" solutions to get such a "level of ambition".   
The institutional strategic autonomy dimension can be found in the European organizational architecture in term of diplomacy and defence, meant to carry out Council, the Commission and Parliament’s decisions in foreign and security policy. The most representative position within this architecture is Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, which was introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty, which came into force in 1999. The role has been assigned to EU’s Council Secretary General, its responsibilities being quite limited at that time. Subsequently, through the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in 2009, high representative’s position also included the Commissioner for Foreign Affairs position, thus becoming one of Union’s key strategic level roles. The one to have position is appointed through European institutions’ mechanisms, similar to European Commission President’s functions, the European Parliament President and the European Council President. The High Representative chairs also the Foreign Affairs Council and represents the Union abroad. Also, the High Representative is Vice-President of the European Commission, joins European Council’s meetings, ensures the External Action Service and the European Defence Agency management, and she is President of EU Institute for Security Studies’ Board of Directors. Militarily speaking, Union’s highest body is the EU Military Committee, composed of member states’ defence chiefs, who propose a permanent president, a general, appointed by the Council. It advises the high representative in all matters concerning defence and he is the main "contact" of military operations’ commanders carried out by EU. In management of crisis situations, the Military Committee president gets help, in the decision-making process, from the military personnel within the External Action Service. However, all major decisions are still taken at national level, as member states refuse to give Brussels other responsibilities for now. 
Although still modest, all of these institutional steps gave Juncker’s Commission the necessary impetus to a debate on the future security and common defence scenarios. In his last speech as President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker said that "[if] Europe would better realize the political, economic and military power it has through its nations, it could give up the exclusive role as a financial contributor on the world stage […] and become a bigger actor on the international stage”. Juncker considered it to be "the moment of European sovereignty", making it clear that all obstacles ton creating the European Union of defence, the last bastion to be conquered in the completion of the European project, must be overcome. Given this background, the topic of "European army’s" establishment re-entered the scene, publicly launched by French President Emanuel Macron, and became one of the most sensitive topics, which could shape the future profile of the European common defense.  
The strategic autonomy technological dimension lies in Union's military equipment innovation capacity. On one hand, such a capacity would allow the European defence industry to reduce its dependence on foreign technologies, especially American ones, incorporated on complex European land, air or naval weapons platforms. On the other hand, the technological capacity will be reflected in the sustainability increase of operational requirements issued by member states’ military forces with products made by the European defence industry or, in other words, "their own products".   
EU’s efforts to increase the European strategic autonomy in terms of military technologies have intensified, in recent years, with the operationalization defence package’s main tools, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defense Fund and the annual Defense Capability Analysis (CARD). The Preparatory action in research field (PADR) and the European Defense Industrial Development Program (EDIDP), launched in the last three years, presets European Defense Fund’s functioning mechanisms in the European financial year 2021-2027, wherefore there will be allocated 13 billion euros from union’s funds, with five times higher national funds from the member states joining the projects. 
We can stat that, now, the technology defence field is strategic autonomy’s most dynamic dimension. In addition, recent developments have drawn Washington officials’ attention, who, at the beginning of May, through US Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, forwarded a letter to Federica Mogherini signed by Ellen Lord, Defence Undersecretary for Procurement and Maintenance, and Andrea Thompson, State Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security. The letter shows Washington authorities’ concern on EDF and PESCO’s operational methods. They think the current regulations would prevent American interested entities from participating in European projects. The US reaction reflects current administration’s concerns regarding EU's political developments in defence, perceived as a threat to NATO’s strength.   
In other words, how the European research and industrial entities are configurating on the platform provided by the European defence package shows how big industrial corporations in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, as expected, want to get the leading positions, as well as a lower participation for Eastern and Center Europe entities. This approach, which is different from east to west of the Union towards the technological and industrial integration benefits may also show how states see Brussels develops the strategic autonomy concept differently. An extremely important cause for this division is how differently member states perceive major threats to European or national security. According to public analyzes, central and eastern Europe states, especially Poland, Romania and the Baltic States, pay more attention to Russia’s aggressive actions at Union’s eastern border, compared to terrorist, immigration or the other threats that can turn into major crises, which we can find on western states security agendas. At the same time, this perspective difference can be seen in the operational concept of strategic autonomy. 
The operational strategic autonomy dimension refers to the Union's ability to carry out military operations autonomously, in order to promote or defend European interests. The operational autonomy level is closely linked to Europeans’ ability to carry out military missions lacking of the participation of US Armed Forces. The fact that most EU member states are also NATO members creates this autonomy’s central dilemma. The most critical observers of the integration process evolution of European defence are questioning whether EU is currently pursuing the creation of a "European military alliance", parallel to NATO. Starting from such a premise, there were raised many controversies, more or less justified, however, able to weaken the transatlantic relationship, after many decades wherein the North Atlantic Alliance and the United States were the main security guarantors of the European continent. Achieving EU's extended military autonomy would require the existence of an entire joint intelligence, planning, organizing and conducting military operations, as well as all logistics needed for operation’s success. Given this context, almost any European citizen could question themselves what resources EU member states could invest in this new military project, given that most of them they fail to meet their financial commitments to NATO. And here is where the discussion may end. But, as always, the suspension points are more useful to get out of a circumstantial deadlock. 
Some conclusions 
1. Strategic autonomy remains rather an ideal or a valuable landmark than a concrete mechanism for strengthening common European security and defence. In order avoid being another fashionable phrase within Europe’s elitist political jargon, the strategic autonomy concept still needs to be better defined and placed more concretely in European Union logic and the partnerships is part of. Questioning the European Union’s strategic autonomy represents a major challenge for Union’s political identity construction. 
2. EU member states see the strategic autonomy concept differently. Currently, there is a division between East and West on how strategic autonomy could better defend European citizens against increasingly aggressive and versatile threats. The concept can still be transformed into a double-edged sword, which could hit Unions’ trust among people living inside its borders. 
3. The United States is a great critic of the European idea of strategic autonomy and sees it poses as a to NATO and a direct threat to the economic interests of US arms producers. Therefore, Brussels officials must convince Washington that a stronger European security and defence profile will not harm the transatlantic security construction, but represents the natural evolution of the integration processes that began with Cold War’s end and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. A sensitive topic for this dialogue will be the small resources allocated by EU member states, which are also NATO members, for allied defence, which in White House's vision deepens the differences between the two Atlantic shores on parties' honest commitments towards the future of joint defence.   
4. Strategic autonomy has made great political steps, however goes stale at the institutional level, has become dynamic technologically speaking and it is "locked" in operational space's realities.  Strategic autonomy’s development concept and its operationalization mechanisms must be achieved in gradually, in order not to get stuck in tactical results’ insufficiency, which often can bring down the most illuminated vision benchmarks. To that end, it is likely that European leaders will have to design the optimal initiative and action architecture, capable of leading an aspiration to success. Furthermore, this concept’s promoters need to explain better how strategic autonomy will bring a better (military) power distribution within the Union and will not lead to an even greater polarization around the current centers of power.  
Translated by Andreea Soare