19 June 2019

The EU strategic autonomy- between responsibility and emancipation

Gheorghe Tibil

Last years’ important development within the European Defence file and the extremely complex international context have brought, again, EU’s strategic autonomy in the spotlight. The increasing disputes between European capitals and Washington due to a series of major security topics and some doubts in terms of the transatlantic relation’s reliability and NATO have urged and increased the disputes on how could “Europe take destiny in its own hands” (Angela Merkel). These recent approaches on Europe’s responsibility for its own security and the international influence are talking about terms like “strategic autonomy” and “European sovereignty”, the latter being mostly used by French political elites.

Image source: Mediafax

Seldom, however, these terms are correctly defined and operationalized, which is actually creating more issues, especially in defence and security’s complex field, directly affecting the transatlantic relations and the NATO-EU cooperation. However, the concrete evolutions of the term “strategic autonomy” had important consequences upon the Union, but also upon each state in particular. If we only think of one of EDF’s main objectives, which is the contribution to “Union’s strategic autonomy”, seen as freedom of action and autonomy in terms of technology and industry, we will realize that the phrase started to gain important practical and juridical stakes.

1. What is actually “strategic autonomy”?

Security studies are defining strategic autonomy as one actor’s ability to establish its own foreign policy and security priorities and have the ability to make and implement decisions, as well as the institutional, political and material conditions’ existence, to apply them, then, independently or, if the case, along with third parts. We can definitely see that such definition covers not only the defence dimension, but the entire foreign policy and security action spectrum.

On the other hand, in a more and more independent global system, autonomy is relative. From a political perspective, the concept refers to increasing the autonomy ability, something seen rather as a continuum on different rates of dependency/independency and not as absolute condition. Autonomy does not mean neither autarchy, nor giving up alliances. It is not a purpose, but an important way of protecting and promoting one’s own values and fundamental interests.

A 2016 Ares report concludes that “strategic autonomy should be a European objective to go beyond member states’ interests, allowing them to ensure security better”[1]. Briefly, the report defines this objective only in terms of military capabilities and key-technologies, necessary for the autonomy. Starting from the need to commit to a more integrative EU strategic approach in defence, we have identified the main elements that should be considered:

- the political-military constituent, which is the ability to make decisions in defence and also apply them;

- operational autonomy, based on the institutional framework and the necessary capabilities to plan and develop civil and military missions and operations independently;

- industrial autonomy, which is the capacity to learn, project and develop the necessary capabilities to get operational autonomy.

All these dimensions are directly referring to an important option, “grand strategy”, for Union’s strategic direction, in this unpredictable evolution of the international system. On the other hand, autonomy’s rate evaluation in defence cannot be made without the concrete investigation of the operational elements, like the ambition rate in the military field and the concrete military tasks[2] that EU should commit to collectively and accomplish without appealing Union’s foreign capabilities.

There were also less obvious approaches for this concept, wherefore reaching the strategic autonomy objective is nothing but supporting the future European army with its negative corollary- affecting the transatlantic-NATO relation as European security’s foundation. Despite this negative perspective, the reasonable and rational option favors the EU strategic autonomy, seen as an effort the Europeans made to do more for their own security and defence, which embraces Atlantic’s both rims expectations and contributes to creating the lately so desired burden sharing.

2. A short history of the concept within EU

European strategic autonomy is an old concept. Basically, each major crisis situation coming from continent’s recent history and each important moment in community’s evolution in defence and security came along with significant conceptual developments on the strategic autonomy dimension. The post-Cold War Balkan crises, the 1998 Saint-Malo moment, the 2003 crisis in transatlantic relations provoked by the Iraq intervention are just some of the perfect examples to that end.

The Common Declaration on European Defence of the French-British Summit from Saint Malo, 4th of December 1998, includes a first key-phrase on strategic autonomy topic: … to that end (to fully play its role on the international scene), the Union must “have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises”. It was also mentioned that “the Union must be given appropriate structures and a capacity for analysis of situations, sources of intelligence, and a capability for relevant strategic planning.” 

A year later, EU’s countries leaders have approved the Headline Goal/ HLG, asking the Union to be capable to dislocate and support at least for a year, in an unbearable environment, 60.000 militaries of the terrestrial forces, with all the necessary air and maritime support, up to a 4.000 km strategic distance from its borders. Then, there was a decade full of “peace’s disputes”, like the first strategic concept (Solana) adopted in 2003, new political objectives, however, in reality, also due to the global financial crisis, as defence’s budgets have decreased constantly, having bad direct effects over Europeans’ real military capabilities. The result was a lack of substance for the EU strategic autonomy evolutions.

They needed that dramatic change in the strategic context, in the spring of 2014, provoked by Crimea’s illegal annexation by Moscow and the continuous campaign which supports the pro-Russian separatists from Eastern Ukraine, but also Kremlin’s more and more aggressive attitude towards EU and NATO, as well as the migration crisis and the terrorist attacks that took place in the middle of this decade for defence to actually become one of Europe’s establishment’s priorities. And, as if these evolutions were not enough, Brexit and the major paradigm change imposed by the Trump administration for unilateralism, that had direct effects within the transatlantic relation, have brought, again, the European strategic autonomy in Brussels’ processes of adapting to this new international security environment.

Given these circumstances, the 2016 European Union’s global Strategy (EUGS) mentions, for the first time, explicitly, strategic autonomy as Union’s main objective –“An appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy is important for Europe’s ability to promote peace and security within and beyond its borders”[3]. It is obvious that this line is an important step for the European strategic thinking, followed by the launching of Union’s most important initiatives in defence, the so-called “Defence Package”, wherefrom PESCO, CARD and EDF are part of. All these recent initiatives are in the implementation process, but even from this point we can assume that these are bringing major contributions and are offering the EU role some substance in defence and security, through the important support offered to the European military capabilities development processes.

3. Three visions on autonomy and their strategic effects

A recent study, made by the European Institute for Security Studies[4], proposes three different conceptual visions on strategic autonomy- autonomy as responsibility, autonomy as hedging and autonomy as emancipation. Each of them has direct effects upon Union’s recent initiatives in defence, EU’s ambition level on security and defence and, finally, upon the transatlantic relation and the burden sharing process.

3.1 Autonomy as responsibility starts from the premises that EU member states must do more in defence and security, commonly, to average out with US, but alto through the Union, when the situation demands it. EUGS foresees explicitly the necessity for the Europeans to commit to a greater responsibility for their own security – “we must be ready and able to deter, response and protect against foreign threats. While NATO defends its members- most of the Europeans- against foreign threats, Europeans must be better equipped, ready and organized to contribute to such collective efforts, as well as to act independently if necessary”.

From this point of view, with increasing the investments in defence’s capabilities, for the union, but also the member states, EU should create the planning and development capacity of military mission and operations, without depending too much on NATO and US. Concretely, in 2017, EU member states have dislocated a total of 52.000 militaries in EU, NATO, OSCE and UN missions and operations, meanwhile US contributed with 208.000 militaries in different global operational commitments. On the other hand, we must admit that, even though these 34 missions and operations EU developed after 2003 were modest as ambition and size, were also mainly independent in terms of decision, command and control structures and capabilities.

In terms of this vision’s effects over NATO and the transatlantic relations, EU’s switch from PESA’s beginning, aiming at crises management outside EU’s territory, to a greater ambition level in security and defence, which involves Union’s foreign borders management, the hybrid threats and terrorism combat, the maritime and spatial global goods and, not least, the operationalization processes of the mutual assistance provisions, included in the 42-7 article of the Lisbon Treaty, have created a series of negative reactions among some European capitals in East and Center of the continent and Washington as well. In order to cool down these critics, the EU documents in the field, but also the Brussels’ leaders are admitting Alliance’s main role in collective defence and deterrence, maintaining their objective for the European states/European pillar to commit to a greater responsibility across NATO (including through the EU defence package developments).

This vision’s main confinement is its neuter character regarding the industrial autonomy. Given that the accent goes on the operational capacity, the military capabilities’ effectiveness is more important than other reasons related to developing the European industrial foundation in defence. Hereof, it can be justified the American military capabilities procurement, regardless of the political conditions imposed by US on their use and other effects in fields like intellectual property rights, technological transfers, exports’ control or supply chain. Hence, most of the military equipment from European armed forces’ endowment comes from other sources than European (40% of the fight aircrafts, for example).

3.2. Autonomy as hedging starts from the increasing uncertainties within the transatlantic relation and it is seen as a solution for EU’s defence policies and structures’ development, so that it can be enough autonomous and effective to accomplish a series of military objectives and tasks if US will slowly withdraw from Europe. To that end, autonomy should be an assurance to protect Europe from a possible deterioration of the relations with US and/or if the ruler stops providing security to the European continent, as it did for more than 70 years.

This vision has direct consequences over EU’s future defence capabilities, and the current initiatives- PESCO, EDF and CARD – are the concrete methods for Union’s proper development of freedom of action and autonomy level, especially in technology and industry. Unlike autonomy’s vision as responsibility, this one includes also an industrial dimension, which underlines the importance of European competitiveness in research and defence industry.

3.3. Autonomy as emancipation is the most sensitive approach in terms of politics and the most radical vision of the strategic autonomy. Emancipation’s supporters think that strategic autonomy is an indivisible concept, as EU should have the ability to protect the European territory, but also its global interests, relying on the entire capabilities spectrum that could be produced and held by European states. To that end, this vision directly involves autonomy in defence and Europeans’ capacity to produce the military equipment and technologies for the endowment of their own armed forces, especially the high-end capabilities, like fight aircrafts, submarines, major air defence equipment, high-precision ammunition, refueling aircrafts, spatial methods etc.

In fact, EU is facing, in most of these fields, serious shortcomings, revealed by the Capabilities Development Plan (CDP). This is the reason why creating strategic autonomy cannot be made without serious national and European investments in these domains, through EDF. We have the greatest impact in the region, in terms of the relations with US, given the major consequences of the European emancipation tendencies upon the big American companies’ interests in the defence industry. Although the European governments are somehow pressured to commit more in defence, to increase the defence budget, the emancipation and support tendencies for the European industry, through initiatives like EDF, are more focused on the fact that it affects NATO’s credibility and the transatlantic connection’s bases. Central and East Europe states seem to be more exposed to this dilemma, as these are finding it difficult to make decisions in terms of European industrial autonomy. Romania and Poland seem to favor the American equipment procurement so far, reasoning that they need to create a superior operational autonomy, in the detriment of a European technological and industrial defence.

We will see how Commission’s recent and consistent entry in the defence field, mainly through EDF, through financing the collaborative military capabilities development and research to 13 billion euro for the future multiannual financial cycle, will manage to actually make a change in skeptical states’ strategic orientation against the European autonomy’s development, including in the industrial field.

4. Conclusions for a complex topic…

We expect for this increasing tendency of the strategic autonomy role within the Union to continue on long and medium term. Although it is more and more present across the important EU documents, like the recent statements of the European Council or president Juncker’s ones, its content remains in a constructive ambiguous area. Indeed, for now and the near future, EU’s autonomy is in the responsibility area and less in the need of assurance one. Europe commits more for its own security, this way protecting the fundamental values and follows Union and member states’ major interests, as defined in the Global Strategy.

A fully autonomous Europe in terms of security and defence seems unrealistic now. Given that NATO is directly involved in ensuring the European security, with Article 5 and a strong ally as the US in our own camp, it could hardly be identified a better security solution. Therefore, Europeans’ major interest is keeping NATO relevant and trustable, including through a new transatlantic equilibrium in collective defence. A new equilibrium refers to all European countries needing an effective autonomy rate to allow them to take care of the crises management, if their interests are affected more than US’s ones. Furthermore, this involves the NATO European members, which, together with US and Canada are “co-responsible” for collective defence, to take the “first responsibility” for their own territorial defence and ensure most of the military capabilities this efforts requires.

From this point of view, the EU-NATO cooperation is a must, as these two entities should dovetail and respect each of their particularities and roles. The logical conclusion is that a stronger EU in the military field and a stronger and trustable NATO are building each other up, creating more synergies and effectiveness in terms of all member states’ defence and security. Hence, we can say that Europeans’ strategic autonomy is basically made through EU and along NATO.

On long term, given the critical evolutions of the global system, massively affecting EU’s basic interests, we cannot exclude the option of creating an effective European autonomy in security and defence as advanced political condition for Union’s integration process. The real commitment to emancipation, as an essential European objective, will lead, most likely, to an important progress towards European defence’s consolidation and, why not, the creation of future’s European army.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] Felix Artega, Toman Jermalavicius, Alessandro Marrone, Jean-Pierre Maulny, Marcin Terlikowski, Appropriate level of European autonomy, Ares Report #16, November 2016 https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/Ares-22-Report-Nov-2017.pdf

[2] We must mention, to that end, two recent studies published by Egmond Institute: Jo Coelmont- European Strategic Autonomy: Which Military Level of Ambition? http://www.egmontinstitute.be/content/uploads/2019/03/SPB109.pdf?type=pdf  and Syen Biscop- Fighting for Europe. Europe Strategic Autonomy and the use of force http://www.egmontinstitute.be/content/uploads/2019/01/EP103.pdf?type=pdf

[3] Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy, https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/eugs_review_web_0.pdf

[4] Daniel Fiott – Strategic autonomy : towards “European sovereignty” in defence?https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Brief%2012__Strategic%20Autonomy.pdf