Strategic autonomy and the next four years of EU-US relations

Opinion piece (Encompass)
Sophia Besch, Luigi Scazzieri
15 December 2020

European leaders greeted Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election with relief. Many Europeans will want to forget Donald Trump’s presidency ever happened, and may row back on their efforts to develop EU ‘strategic autonomy’ in security and defence. The term has been used to describe Europeans’ efforts over the past four years to develop their capacity to carry out military operations without US support, and develop more arms together at home rather than buying them abroad.

The future of ‘European strategic autonomy’ has already received renewed attention with the US election. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer argued that Europeans should abandon “illusions” of European strategic autonomy since they would not be able to replace America as a security provider, echoing arguments that leaders of Central and Eastern European member-states have often made. Other politicians, like French President Emmanuel Macron and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, have argued that Europeans cannot be sure of America’s reliability and that Biden’s victory should not distract them from efforts to advance their strategic autonomy. The COVID-19 pandemic may lead to yet more cuts in defence spending, meaning that there is a risk Europeans will be tempted to focus on continuing to debate abstract concepts like strategic autonomy rather than investing resources in improving their ability to act on their own.

However, the distinction between a ‘European path’ and a ‘transatlantic path’ in European security and defence is misguided, and the supposed disagreement between Berlin and Paris feeds a straw man debate. Europe needs to become a more capable security and defence actor, both to work better with the United States, and because it will have to go it alone if its interests are not aligned with the US.

It would be a mistake for Europeans to abandon their defence efforts now that Biden has won. Trumpism in some form is likely to endure, meaning that Europeans cannot be sure whether Biden’s successors will be committed to European security. Moreover, US foreign policy is shifting its focus towards China, meaning that the US is likely to be less focused on Europe and its neighbourhood in the future. Europeans have to take on more responsibility for their own security, both for their own sake and to strengthen the relationship with the US.

Instead of endlessly debating labels, Europeans should focus their efforts on how to improve their security and defence capabilities – and then actually use them if necessary. Europeans do not need to choose between pursuing their security through the EU on the one hand, or through NATO and the alliance with the US on the other, nor should they. Instead, they need to invest in their ability to act together, both within the EU and through other frameworks, in order to be able to act alone if the US will not.

First, proponents of strategic autonomy should shift their emphasis to advancing a more concrete debate about the threats facing Europe and the capabilities needed to counter them. This would help persuade both European sceptics of strategic autonomy and the US of the merits of a stronger EU in security and defence. It would also bring out differences in which threats European member-states prioritise and facilitate an honest discussion on how to bridge those differences. A starting point could be investing seriously in aligning NATO and EU defence efforts, for example by ensuring that NATO’s planning process and the EU’s new co-ordinated annual defence review are fully joined up, and aligning the process of writing the EU’s new Strategic Compass with the process of writing NATO’s new Strategic Concept.

Second, Europeans should ensure that the EU’s defence initiatives deliver concrete results. The European Peace Facility should contribute to strengthening partner countries in the EU’s neighbourhood while Permanent Structured Co-operation and the European Defence Fund should contribute to generating the military capabilities that member-states need. Beyond investing in conventional defence capabilities, Europeans will also have to invest more into emerging civilian technologies with military applications, to ensure that their military forces remain fully interoperable with the US military.

Third, Europeans should focus on developing a common strategic culture. Improved capabilities alone will not make Europe a more effective security actor. If they actually plan to deploy troops together, Europeans will have to agree on a shared assessment of the threats facing the EU and how to counter them together. They will have to reform their decision-making procedures, to allow them to respond to crises in time. And they will have to invest more in the readiness of their armed forces, and their ability to move troops across Europe. Europeans will also have to increase their preparedness to counter ‘hybrid’ challenges such as disinformation campaigns, particularly from Russia and China, and cyber threats by government-sponsored hackers and other groups.

Biden’s administration should welcome European efforts and try to steer them towards collaborative projects that lead to improved European capabilities in areas where NATO has identified shortfalls, and where the EU can add most value, such as cyber-defence and military mobility. The US should take the long view, accepting that a more developed EU defence role will probably mean a degree of European divergence, especially on industrial matters, including fewer purchases of US arms. This should be a price that is worth paying for Washington. A stronger and more confident Europe will be better able to look after its own security and place the transatlantic bond on a more solid footing. This would provide the basis for a renewed transatlantic security partnership.  

Sophia Besch is a senior research fellow and Luigi Scazzieri is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.