October 10, 2018

It’s Time to Shape the Conversation on “European Strategic Autonomy”

Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier / Flickr
EU flags
EU flags

The term “European strategic autonomy” has been around for a while, but it gained more attention with the publication of the EU Global Strategy in 2016 and president Macron’s continuous use of the phrase since.

There has been a running joke that no one really understands what it is about. Two years on, there seem to be two camps—one is very critical of the concept, while the other is less so but more worried. However, the confusion about what the term means still seems to continue.

The changing transatlantic relationship has provoked renewed prominence of the term. The nature of US support for Europe is less clear and more ambivalent than before. President Trump has further echoed and dramatised this, but the general US retreat from the world, growing strategic focus on Asia and increasingly transactional cooperation with Europe has been visible for the past ten years.

In response to the shift in transatlantic relations, president Macron has put forward the idea of Europe becoming more autonomous and independent in its security and defence. During recent visits to Finland and Denmark, he called for the latter to do more in defence at the European level despite its EU opt-outs and published a joint French-Finnish statement on European defence that called for further efforts in defence and security at the EU level. There has been reaction to this idea on both sides of the Atlantic.

For one, the Baltic states are somewhat cautious about the term and do not really like the idea at all. As the “Charlemagne” column in this week’s issue of The Economist discusses, the cornerstone of the region’s security is NATO, and in the newspaper’s view for the Americans “European strategic autonomy” would consequently mean undermining and distancing oneself from NATO. And some argue that there is no political will, or the resources and capabilities, even to think about European strategic autonomy.

Americans do not really like the idea either. To begin with, in general the US does not like to be excluded from things; and, as General Ben Hodges (commander of US forces in Europe) reminded the Riga Conference in September 2018, the US needs Europe to engage with Africa and the Middle East. Though the US is powerful, it still needs partners it can rely on. There was also an idea floating around that European strategic autonomy is a result of Europeans panicking about president Trump’s time in the White House and that Europeans should not be scared off by Trump. If anything, it gives him further justification to distance the US from Europe.

However, France’s explanation of the concept of strategic autonomy raises certain questions. In hindsight, it makes me think that a better choice of term would have been more helpful for what France is trying to achieve with the idea. That is, the idea behind the concept is to promote discussion and thinking by the European powers about what capabilities and resources they have and what they can do with them. What crises can they react to and manage independently? And which not? Where do the Europeans need the US, and where not? What are the limits of European independent action? In what circumstances are the benefits of Europeans acting together greater than those of working with the US? Are there any? What kind of capabilities and resources need to be developed? What sort of crisis may emerge in Europe or its vicinity in which the US is unlikely to act but Europe needs to?

While I understand the grievances of the Baltic states and the US when confronted with the concept of European strategic autonomy, I also think the Baltics and the US need to understand where France’s need in these questions comes from. From 30 March 2019, France will be the only country that is a member of both NATO and the EU, has nuclear weapons and a sizeable and functioning army, is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and is one of the largest powers in Europe. If something happens in Europe or its vicinity—be it in the Middle East or Africa—that unleashes a wave of refugees, spills conflict into Europe or allows terrorist cells to secure territory and carry out attacks in Europe, which subsequently destabilises the continent, it is not the Baltic states that must answer the question “Why are you not doing anything?” It is France. With great power comes greater responsibility, and the Baltic states need to be more understanding of that.

Yes, the security of the Nordic-Baltic region is the primary concern of the Baltic states. However, a destabilised, incapable and embittered Europe threatens the security and stability of both the Nordic-Baltic region and the transatlantic relationship. The Baltic states, however worried about the future of the transatlantic partnership they might be, ought not to forget, therefore, that a properly functioning Europe is a vital component of our region’s security.

France setting off a discussion about European capabilities, limits, needs and caveats is therefore an important and, from France’s point of view, responsible thing to do. I think it is also reasonable that the Baltic states and the US should remind France that the security of Europe depends on the transatlantic relationship. Nevertheless, the Baltic states have a balancing act ahead of them: promoting a stronger, more united and capable Europe while at the same time keeping the US committed. This is where the focus of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius must be—shaping the debate—and not in criticising and fearing discussion about European strategic autonomy. It is an unfortunate name, I agree. Perhaps a good start would be to put forward an alternative and better-suited one.