EU Strategic Autonomy state of play and possible scenarios

Since 2016 a number of developments have generated uncertainty in Europe and across the globe. Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency in 2016 – coupled with China’s  growth in economic political and military weight over the last decade –  have been interpreted by a number of analysts and opinion-makers as a calling into question of the Western model,  at least as   it had emerged at the end of WW II. A model  whose victory  over the communist one  in 1989 ( end of the cold war and fall of the Berlin Wall ) was presented by Francis Fukuyama, precisely in 1989,  as representing the “end of history”.

The logical implication of the above said “questioning” of the “traditional” Western model  was that the European Union , which has in the meantime lost the UK after Brexit , would remain alone in defending the very foundations of that model. A model whose main virtue lies ,for  a large number  of  Europeans, in its coherence between its declared values ( “universalism” translated into multilateralism and the primacy of a international law ) and concrete converging interests: given the fact that the EU member states, and the EU as such, are historically the main beneficiaries of globalization , of cooperative relations  and , finally, of an interdependence based on openness to trade and foreign investments.

The sense of “solitude” felt by the EU since 2016 on account of the two above said concurring factors was  perceived in two ways: as a loss of decades-long certitudes but, also, as an opportunity.

A loss for those member states which, like Germany , were afraid these factors might lead in the end to the weakening of a basic pre-condition ( that is a rule – based open multilateral trade) of its contemporary role as a mostly mercantilist and cooperative power .  An opportunity, for other member states like France which felt the moment had come to promote with renewed determination its long-standing vision of the transatlantic relationship :  a vision whereby NATO would see its defensive /military role preserved  but its “political” function –  as the prominent Western body for consultations and decisions on security issues – at least  reduced to the benefit of the European Union.

A vision furthermore whereby a post- Brexit European Union  could finally retrieve margins of political action not only vis-à-vis the American ally but also towards communist China, Russia and other significant players.

Among the symptoms of the unravelling of the old world order many pointed and  point to the emergence, at the border of the European Union, of regional players with an agenda substantially different from the  the European one.

An agenda based on the revision of the current balance of power and on the possession, by these revisionist powers,  of the instruments to implement it  . Instruments  which include, to mention a  few, systems of governance capable of taking decisions rapidly and a readiness to face the risks which  the aforesaid decisions may imply.

In the vacuum determined in some areas by the American disengagement , under the Obama and then the Trump  administrations, Russia and Turkey have managed in a number of cases ( such as , for instance, Syria  ) to act apparently with opposite goals but, in fact, with techniques and approaches allowing in the end for a shared management of international crises. It is what analysts have come to call “competitive cooperation” or “ cooperative competition”.

This has resulted for Ankara and Moscow in an increase in influence and profile in a number of regions  ( including Syria and  Libya)  coupled with a greater  freedom of action: in other words a “win-win” situation.

Within the European Union  these unexpected developments at international level – with the US apparently less ad less ready to engage diplomatically and on the ground ( even though things seem to be changing again with the new Biden administration) – have brought to the forefront, as a possible European forward-looking response,  the concept of “strategic autonomy”.

The discussion on the topic has been taking place – and  is still taking place – at three different levels: 1) at an outer circle , the network of European “think-tanks” where ideas are put forward  anticipating in many cases the political  choices; 2)  the second circle  represented by high – level political communication ( where bold ideas are launched such as the one of a European Army  put forward by President  Macron or the one of a EU Security Council floated by Chancellor Merkel). The third level of discussion is the one represented by the search for concrete , even though may be less ambitious, solutions.

This has resulted for example in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence : a very concrete exercise which may bring results in the medium term but , unfortunately, with a limited political visibility at least as of now.

The most recent among these exercises is the so-called “Strategic Compass” proposed by Germany as an instrument   potentially capable of bringing “under the same roof”   the different processes under way in the field of European  security and defence .  It is an exercise launched last August under the German Presidency of the European Union which should reach its hopefully positive conclusion  under the next French EU presidency  (first half of  2022).

An “autonomous analysis” by the European Union of the strategic scenario/scenarios is one of the novelties envisaged by the “Strategic Compass” : an  analysis which should constitute, once in place, the working basis for  more focussed and operational decisions by the EU in the security field,  as well as in terms of better defining the areas where resources should be allocated in order to reach a really competitive “European Industrial and Technological Basis” in the defence sector.

To quote the EU High Representative  Josep Borrell : ” The Strategic Compass is a way to take into account the whole  series of challenges the EU has to tackle : a way for EU Defence and Foreign Ministers  to finally adopt a global approach.”

That said, even though originated in the frame of the discussions on European defence and security the concept of “strategic autonomy” has been progressively broadened in the Commission thinking to encompass the economic , industrial, commercial and technological aspects.  This has become clear  with the introduction of the formula of a “geo-political Commission” utilized by President von der Leyen in her inauguration speech . The concept of “strategic autonomy” as the “objective of our generation” has also been emphasized by the EU Council President Charles Michel for instance in his speech of last September to the Bruegel think-tank.

This has unfortunately led to a certain degree of confusion because the two bodies ( the European Commission and the European Council ) are somewhat different, in the first place for their roles: a prominent role of the EU member states, and therefore of the Council,  when it comes to security and defence matters and a prominent role of the European Commission when it comes to economic, trade-related , industrial and technological issues.

This  sometimes  confusing interaction between the Commission and the Council provides  us however, at the same time, with significant  elements for a more precise understanding of the most important contemporary international issues:

  • In the first place the more and more visible interconnection between economy and security, so much so that there are those who once again tend  to  consider rightly or wrongly international  trade as one of the areas  of confrontation among powers (“trade war”).
  • In the second place, the reduced capacity of the multilateral system to adopt and implement binding rules on trade – related matters.
  • In the third place, the competition between great powers to secure their access to the resources needed to sustain or increase their pace of economic growth , including energy ,  and to those necessary for the production of technologically advanced goods.
  • The multiplication of the number of regional players with sufficient resources and cynicism to influence in a decisive way a number of aspects of international reality.

It is important to keep all these “interconnections” in mind to fully grasp the importance of the debate underway within the EU on “strategic autonomy”.

In this respect is trying over the to promote a vision of “strategic autonomy” coherent with its NATO commitments but, at the same time , not incompatible with the progresses achieved  by the European  Union and by PESCO as enshrined for instance  in the Global Strategy of 2016.

In other words the Italian view is that – as it emerges also from the debates promoted by a number of Italian      think tanks – a European credible “strategic autonomy” can be pursued in a spirit of perfect complementarity with the commitments towards NATO of the EU members states  ( such as Italy, France, Germany, Spain to quote but a few) which are also part of the Atlantic Alliance.

This kind of “strategic autonomy” could for instance take the shape  of a EU capacity to conduct “out of area” missions -preferably but not necessarily with non EU partners- as a component of a larger set of instruments which would include: preventive diplomacy, stabilization initiatives, peace-building …..: in other words the “peace continuum” as envisaged and presented by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

As said above  this path towards  “strategic autonomy” would be fully compatible with a NATO membership since, on the one hand, it does not aim to replace the Atlantic Alliance as the cornerstone of “collective defence “ (as enshrined in article 5 of the Washington Treaty) ; on the other, it does not  put into question NATO’s political function as the prominent consultative and coordination body on security issues between the Europe  and the United States.

It would, in substance, represent for the EU a pragmatic and incremental way of moving towards  the agreed objective of a European strategic autonomy .

An approach not too distant after all – even though some fine-tuning may be needed in particular between France and a more NATO-oriented Germany –  from the views expressed by President Macron, on February 19, at the virtual special edition of the Munich Security Conference ( in his speech President Macron said inter alia the following :”.. .I believe  the best possible involvement of Europe within NATO is to be more in charge of its own security and to be much more in charge of its strategic autonomy”) .

Nor would the aforesaid  approach would be substantially different – and this is why it could constitute a  solid common denominator – from the vision put forward last December by The EU High Representative and Commission Vice- President (HR/VP) Josep Borrell: ”…. We are not protectionists but we have to protect ourselves and prevent risks. No matter how we want to call it, European Sovereignty or Strategic Autonomy, we have to find a way to have a stronger EU able to be a credible global player. But this does not mean a decoupling with the US or a weakening of NATO”. On the contrary, Borrell  goes on, “ we are ready to represent the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance”

This is exactly the point: to have Europe become finally able to manage crises of   its direct concern whenever a US involvement or intervention is not feasible .

The following instruments can be envisaged  in order to facilitate and possibly  reach a consensus within the EU on the exact meaning and reach of a European “strategic autonomy” :

  • At European level : a) an increased dialogue and coordination between the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) on the topic; b) the promotion, within the European Council, of a unitary vision encompassing both the trade/economic dimension and the security / defence dimension of a “strategic autonomy”;
  • At intergovernmental level: meetings at ministerial level in the “2 plus 2” format (Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Ministers of Defence) with agendas including the issue of the  defence industry ( an issue which represents the most immediate connection between the two dimensions of “strategic autonomy”: the economic/trade related one and the security/ defence  related one);
  • A strengthening of discussion on strategic autonomy at parliamentary level ( both at the European Parliament and within national Parliaments) building on the opportunity provided for instance by the envisaged “Conference on the future of Europe : an exercise  officially launched on March 10  by the President of the European Parliament , the current Portuguese Presidency of the  Council and  the President of the Commission and due to involve the largest possible number of  European citizens with a view at collecting their vision on the future of Europe.

To conclude, all the above shows that the debate   on EU “strategic autonomy” is far from over. But also that it is “work in progress” allowing for a substantial contribution and exchange of ideas by and between European think-tanks and citizens , and well deserving the effort. (*)

Gabriele Checchia, direttore relazioni internazionale Fondazione Farefuturo

(*) Articolo predisposto in inglese per illustrare la posizione della Fondazione, di cui l’autore è responsabile delle relazioni internazionali, in riviste di Fondazioni straniere con le quali Farefuturo è in partnership.