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Robin Staes-Polet: European Strategic Autonomy: A Luxury or Necessity Good?

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has abruptly thrust the importance of European state sovereignty into the spotlight, exposing the fragility of the security that most have taken for granted since World War 2 (Vershbow 2016). Since then, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has provided a seemingly unwavering US-backed guarantee safeguarding European security, enshrined under Article 5 of the treaty (Deni 2017). Under these auspices, European states were enabled to focus on strengthening their economies following the war, while their defence umbrella was chiefly funded and provided by the United States (Techau 2015).


European efforts to join military forces and create a common European army have come to nought, in part due to the failure of the French and Italian leadership to ratify the Treaty of Paris in 1952, which thus blocked the creation of the European Defence Community (EDC) (Ruane 2000). Europe is often excluded from the negotiation table when it comes to regional conflicts, and European politicians blame this on their lack of a common military. This is evident in cases such as the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, and Syria, where the “Astana platform” for conflict negotiations included powers such as Russia, Iran, and Turkey, but not Europe (Mezran and Varvelli 2019).


Recent shifts in geopolitics, most prominently the Obama administration’s “pivot” towards Asia in 2011, have moved the US foreign policy’s focus away from Europe and the Middle East, rendering Europeans uncertain about the robustness of NATO’s security guarantee (Davidson 2014). To make things worse, the Trump administration strongly resisted funding and supporting NATO while implementing a chaotic withdrawal of US arms from Syria (Erlanger 2019). Even with pro-NATO president Joe Biden, Europeans have witnessed clumsy US leadership in Afghanistan (O’Connor 2021), forcing them to seek European “Strategic Autonomy”.


Though this term also refers to building broader economic independence, this piece will focus exclusively on the military aspect of the term. In this formulation, strategic autonomy refers to the capacity to act, backed by military capabilities.


First discussed in 2013, the concept was put to practise through the establishment of the European Defence Fund (EDF) in 2017 and later chosen to be a central tenet of the von der Leyen Commission (Blockmans 2020). Many European initiatives are seen as vague discussions and are often criticised as a tangle of grand stratagems never nurtured to fruition (Billon-Galland and Thomson 2018). Whether the goal of strategic autonomy is another one of these vague European initiatives can be ascertained through a look at the EU Strategic Compass draft document, which was released in November 2021 and is expected to be finalised and adopted in late March 2022. Currently, the document does not represent a radical departure from the military status quo, but rather a fine-tuning of the speed and flexibility of EU military response and decision-making. This measure comes in the aftermath of the fiasco in Afghanistan, creating the EU Rapid Reaction Capacity of 5000 quick-response troops (Nováky 2021).


However, given the enthusiasm of French President Macron (if re-elected) for developing an “EU army” (Wheeldon 2021) and the changing winds of the Ukraine war pushing Germany to stray further from its demilitarised post-war status (as demonstrated by the state’s extra 100 billion euro investment into its military (Connolly 2022)), strategic autonomy does not seem like a fad. Although it is important to analyse the pace of this development, it is still the clear direction in which the EU is moving in. Already, projects such as the Future Combat Air System (SCAF), involving France, Germany, and Spain, are in the pipeline, even though the fighter jets are only planned to enter service in 2040 (Machi 2021). Building military and defence capabilities, by nature, is a long-term process.


Another important question concerns coordination. It is crucial to make sure that these projects do not duplicate any national efforts, and that organisation is smooth at the European-level. A possible way to facilitate this is by having a unified central command make major decisions and raise other important questions of sovereignty over national troops and materiel. The same needs to be asked of overlaps with NATO efforts. However, the increased investment by Europeans into European defence must surely be eventually welcomed by their Atlantic partners, who have long-harangued them to meet the 2%-of-GDP spending target on their militaries (Techau 2015).


Taking another step back, one might also question whether the real limiting factor is even military capacity and whether more firepower would necessarily reap greater rewards for Europe. The US military has unquestioned superiority in almost any area it chooses to engage in, and yet has faced a long string of failures in its military history, from losing wars in Vietnam, to losing lives in Afghanistan (Punaro 2021). The increase in EU defensive capability would improve its domestic security. However, European belief in its moral superiority over the US might not necessarily lead to more successful interventions. A rejuvenated EU military (a hawkish success) would need to be properly directed as a force for good (a dovish ambition) and not abused. Perhaps building European strategic autonomy is the easy part, and the real challenge lies in wielding it well.


Written by Robin Staes-Polet, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons

Source: Lukasz Kobus


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