December 19, 2019

European Strategic Autonomy: A Cacophony of Political Visions

The policy of strategic autonomy helps bring EU member states around a single table

EU security and defence cooperation has been accompanied by strife right from the start. References to a self-sufficient defence capability and questions about its meaning in practice have been the common thread in these debates. In 2016, the subject emerged again when the EU defined European Strategic Autonomy as an official part of its Common Foreign and Security Policy.1 Although we don’t hear the phrase “strategic autonomy” as often as we did a couple of years ago, the idea is still relevant. A thorough analysis of the different dimensions of European strategic autonomy can be found, for example, in a recent report by the International Centre for Defence and Security.2 The topic came up again in current political news thanks to an interview by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in November, in which he suggested that NATO was “brain-dead”.3 Not just the EU, but the continent as a whole, seems to be seeking a point of balance in the volatile security environment characterised by tension between major powers, instability in Europe’s neighbouring areas and general challenges to the rules-based world order. But where exactly this point of equilibrium lies and how dependent it is on Europe’s ability to operate autonomously in the security landscape seems to be one of those million-dollar questions that doesn’t have a clear answer—at least, not a single one on which the member states can agree.

Same Words, Different Tune: Various Perceptions of Strategic Autonomy

The ambition of a strategically autonomous Europe has stirred up conflicting opinions on both sides of the Atlantic. Word games with “autonomy” at a time when cohesion and strong partnerships are more important than ever can understandably cause confusion, even reluctance. However, the issues of strategic autonomy as a concept and a political goal lie not in the controversy over the phrase but in its ambiguity. This is why policymakers and researchers often claim that EU member states attribute entirely different meanings to the term. The reasoning behind this is more than logical. Member states’ strategic thinking is formed by diverse strategic cultures, varying senses of threat, and political self-interest. This leads to a plurality of meanings. However, knowing that the term can be interpreted in different ways is not enough. It is more important to understand the different views and their effect on the EU’s defence cooperation at the practical level. During last spring and winter, I conducted 23 interviews with French, Dutch, German, Finnish and Estonian security- and defence-policy experts and practitioners based on these issues. In this article I will give a brief overview of the most important findings in my study.4

It is almost impossible to discuss strategic autonomy without mentioning France. This country, which has historically supported strengthening Europe’s global presence and whose national defence-policy doctrines have included the concept of strategic autonomy since the mid-1990s, has perhaps the clearest vision of this ambition. In short, strategic autonomy is seen in France primarily as a political principle, which is reflected in the capability to act alone when necessary—to analyse the strategic situation, make quick decisions and use military capabilities in a conflict situation. Both material defence capability and common strategic culture are considered important in order to accomplish this. The French understanding of strategic autonomy does not imply isolation or the wish to distance itself from its allies. It is seen, rather, as a pillar that allows strong coalitions to be established. However, it is important to highlight a difference in emphasis here: for French policymakers, strategic autonomy is directly linked to decreasing dependences. Thus, practical steps to enhance Europe’s defence capability require certain exclusivity, as it is something that should be achieved in cooperation with all European countries, either within the EU framework or outside it, without the direct involvement of third parties.

In simple terms, France can be compared to the Netherlands with its strong transatlantic traditions. Strategic autonomy as a concept has a somewhat negative connotation amongst Dutch policymakers and, like Finland (see below), they would prefer to talk about Europe’s strategic responsibility, which entails more substantial contributions to regional security as well as the readiness to act as a strong ally. The Dutch vision doesn’t prioritise a strategically autonomous Europe (which, on a purely conceptual level, is primarily linked to the capability to act independently) but a more effective and cohesive Europe whose Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) should always develop in step with NATO and purposefully maintain existing strong transatlantic bonds. Using existing measures and means more effectively is of key importance here. In general, Dutch policymakers put the highest value on open defence cooperation. They believe we cannot speak of a stronger and more powerful Europe if we leave our partners and allies aside. In this context, the Dutch believe that, for purely practical reasons proceeding from added value, EU defence-policy initiatives should be more flexible in involving third parties. The Dutch position on a strategically autonomous Europe is summed up well by the words of one of my interviewees: “It should be about better Europe, not more Europe”.

In Germany—a country that can be often seen as the balancing force between transatlantic and European extremes—there is a quite interesting understanding of European strategic autonomy, which is affected by the Germans’ commitment to European integration and their complicated history of using military force. For the Germans, European strategic autonomy is in many respects dependent on the EU’s unity and strong political framework, which can be seen as a prerequisite for the development and application of any capability. It is therefore part of a broader European integration project. According to German experts, despite a certain focus on Europe, this orientation in developing CSDP does not contradict maintaining a strong transatlantic partnership. Positive developments in the EU’s security and defence policy are seen, rather, as beneficial for both parties.

Nevertheless, there are some differences at the national level, as policymakers with strong transatlantic sympathies call for caution to be exercised in word and action. In the Germans’ vision there is some space for the development of European military capability and defence industry, but they generally refrain from sweeping promises. According to the Germans, the effective use of soft force is an extremely important part of strategic autonomy. Thus, in Germany strategic autonomy remains a term with a clearly political undertone, which should ideally bring member states close together under a single European flag.

Finland and Estonia are somewhat similar, but very different from the perspective of defence policy: the former is not a member of NATO, while the latter is a committed member of the Alliance. Their perceptions on European strategic autonomy are quite similar. For both countries it is more relevant and strategically reasonable to talk about European strategic responsibility. Finnish policymakers make this especially clear. Although strategic autonomy as such represents, for both Estonia and Finland, the ability to act independently, it is not seen as a priority for the EU or something that would be realistically achievable in the near future. In this, Estonian experts are perhaps even more sceptical than their Finnish colleagues. However, both countries’ policymakers support the gradual development of European defence capabilities and the more efficient implementation of existing measures. Both countries consider it extremely important to meet the defence expenditure-related obligations they have taken on. While in general both Estonian and Finnish experts find that, if the correct approach is used, the implementation of principles related to strategic autonomy is useful both for the EU and for NATO, then for Estonia, challenges related to potential bad communication are somewhat more acute. In conclusion, both countries’ policymakers think the vision of European strategic autonomy (or responsibility) should go hand in hand with strong partnerships, cohesion and well-reasoned cooperation.

When reading summaries of member states’ perceptions of European strategic autonomy, we find ourselves caught in a muddle of words, with a lot of repetition but also distinct differences. What does it all actually mean? Overall, it shows that diverging views on strategic autonomy are not about the abstract term itself but the consequences of its potential application. Its primary meaning is similar in all the member states analysed, referring to the EU’s capability to act independently on security- and defence-policy issues. Here, member states’ policymakers have adopted the three main dimensions of strategic autonomy suggested by analysts and researchers: political, military and industrial.5

However, differences in the member states’ opinions emerge in relation to more reflective issues, such as whether the autonomy should result in Europe’s relative self-sufficiency in guaranteeing its security or whether gradual defence capability development should be seen as an end in itself; where the ambition of strategic autonomy stands in terms of Europe’s cooperation partners (exclusivity/inclusivity); and whether the European drive towards strategic autonomy would be perceived as a potential threat to transatlantic values. In reality, these dissenting views are not completely new and have been part of the debate on EU defence cooperation directly or indirectly for years. The question remains: is there a way out?

From Words to Actions: the Limits of EU Defence Cooperation

Although words and actions are closely linked in global politics, actions still outweigh words. Defence cooperation between EU member states has so far been modest. However, in the past few years some progress has been made in this field. Roughly around the time when strategic autonomy found its way into EU documents and politicians’ speeches, the EU also launched a number of defence initiatives, the three most important being Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Fund (EDF) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) mechanism.

These initiatives cannot be equated to the principle of strategic autonomy, but in a broader sense they serve the same purpose—improving self-sufficient defence capability in Europe. Even the EU’s representatives have often referred to the abovementioned defence initiatives (particularly PESCO) as mechanisms necessary for achieving strategic autonomy. All of this sounds grand in theory—the EU has an ambition and the instruments to fulfil it—but in reality, it remains questionable whether functional cooperation can be built around a purpose on which member states don’t see eye to eye.

One thing is certain: in the field of CSDP, the issue of sovereignty remains extremely important for member states. Nevertheless, consensus is required to make EU-wide security- and defence-policy decisions. The collision of different political visions therefore often gives rise to an impasse, so that many of the EU’s defence ambitions remain just empty words on a sheet of paper. When I was writing my thesis, I touched upon this topic with the interviewees by asking them whether they felt that cooperation in the framework of the most recent defence initiatives had again been hindered by obscure goals and dissenting views; most were non-committal in their answer.

Policymakers from all five selected member states admitted that there had been progress in defence cooperation in recent years and that the EU’s instruments and initiatives had significant potential. At the same time, all interviewees agreed that the cooperation was still under development and there was a lot of work to be done in order for the EU and its member states to reap benefits from sustainable defence cooperation. Experts also stated that even Brussels understood that member states weren’t in complete accord about the actual content of the EU’s defence ambitions, and the concept of strategic autonomy and everything that surrounds it often only added to the confusion. However, practitioners did not wish to get stuck in semantics, emphasising that common activities and actual cooperation naturally lead to greater clarity and help to define member states’ collective understanding of set goals.

Hence, cooperation even remotely inspired by the vision of strategic autonomy cannot be prematurely labelled a failure. Digging deeper into the topic, we see that even in the current phase of cooperation some serious conflicts have emerged that largely reflect the same dissenting views mentioned in discussing the meaning of the term. In general, this can be summed up by two keywords: ambition and inclusion of partners.

These issues can be explained in detail by exploring developments related to the PESCO framework. The main difference in ambitions lies in the member states’ understanding of sufficiently meaningful and important cooperation projects, while it is unclear how much they actually want to implement PESCO to achieve better shared capabilities. The conflicting views of member states are even more evident on the issue of including third parties. The topic of inclusivity and exclusivity has dogged PESCO from the beginning. While the capacity of involving member states was discussed initially (everybody vs. the more active parties), the focus has now shifted to external partners.

Most of the member states, the Netherlands in particular, support a flexible approach proceeding from the principle of added value. The other camp, led by France, supports a more exclusive approach according to which external partners should be involved on a strictly exceptional basis. Finding a balance on this question has turned out to be extremely challenging, creating a scenario in which countries take defence cooperation outside the EU framework when they don’t like the end result of the discussion, meaning that many of the efforts made thus far have come to nothing.

In exploring the grey area between words and actions concerning EU defence cooperation, it is worth noting that the Union’s institutional infrastructure is a mixed blessing. It is often extremely complicated to develop a common policy for 27 member states with very different backgrounds. It is therefore not very surprising if the promising words laid down in EU doctrines are often much more moderate in their practical application. It is perhaps worth considering here that ostentatious ambitions might to some extent be necessary. Although the term “strategic autonomy” is ill defined and in some senses completely conflicting, it has helped to bring member states around the same table and make progress on EU defence cooperation. The main challenge now is how to find a balance between different ambitions and concerns. The key term here is political will, not a shared understanding of strategic autonomy.

Conclusion: What to Expect in the Future

What next? The EU has certain structures and means to develop its defence capability. Some member states know what they want and some know what they definitely don’t want. Sceptics of strategic autonomy have several watertight arguments, for example limited resources or the impracticality of the EU’s excessive focus on defence policy.

However, at this point, we must not overlook one of the most important claims made by the promoters of this idea: European strategic autonomy cannot be viewed as a simple choice—many principles connected to it may turn out to be crucially necessary. Hidden between the lines lies, of course, the relativity of autonomy. This is perhaps not the most important matter today. From the point of view of EU member states, it is crucial to understand that in today’s security environment we cannot rely entirely on someone else’s protective umbrella, and Europe cannot afford to be a weak ally. Governments change, priorities change, strategic visions change, but (national) interests remain a constant.

Consequently, in the national interest of EU member states we must find shared views on which we can build workable European security and defence cooperation without getting lost in the depths of empty rhetoric, despite our differences. This doesn’t have to be, and perhaps shouldn’t be, done under the aegis of autonomy, but neither can it be ignored.


1 Further reading: “European Union, Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy”. European Commission, 2016.

2 P. Järvenpää, C. Major and S. Sakkov, “European Strategic Autonomy: Operationalising a buzzword”, ICDS, 2019.

3 “Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead”, The Economist, 7 November 2019.

4 E. Libek, “The European Union’s quest for strategic autonomy: divergence of understandings across member states and its implications for cooperation”, Tartu Ülikool, 2019. This study was concluded with the help of the Estonian Ministry of Defence in the framework of the stipend awarded in the competition on defence-related Master’s theses. The thesis can be found at:

5 See, for example, R. Kempin and B. Kunz, “France, Germany, and the Quest for European Strategic Autonomy: Franco-German Defence Cooperation in A New Era”, Institut français des relations internationals (IFRI), Notes du Cerfa, No. 141, 2017.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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