EU strategic autonomy: realistic or pipe dream?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, addressing the Munich Security Conference, February 2, 2019 (still from CNN video ‘Merkel hammers Trump as Ivanka looks on’ on YouTube)


Strategic autonomy is not sufficient to become a global player. Europe must aim at independence: departure of American troops, a single foreign policy and a European defence.

In recent years, the issue of ‘strategic autonomy’ has been the order of the day within the EU. The discussion dates back to decades ago. Since the Second World War just about every American president insisted that European allies must contribute their ‘fair share’ to the NATO budget. That contribution was set at 2% of GDP, a completely random yard-stick because it was not substantiated by real threats, not the hyped up threats that we all too often get presented. Under the ‘America First’ policy of Donald Trump in the White House, the debate has deepened and hardened. And Trump made statements that cast doubt on the US security guarantee.

European defence has been a topic, too. First initiatives were the establishment of a European Defence Fund (EDF) and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). It was hoped that the renewed Franco-German friendship treaty that Merkel and Macron signed on January 22, 2019 would herald new steps. But there is little news in the treaty. The parties to the treaty pledged to take steps to improve coordination of foreign policy and defence, at the same time strengthening European defence capabilities. But hardly anything was said about a joint vision on the grand chessboard, the changing balance of power in the world.

Europe is waiting for Germany and France to take the lead

The response from Donald Tusk, President of the European Council until 1 December 2019, was spot on: Europe is waiting for Germany and France to take the lead in order to achieve further integration, prompting European member states to step by step entrust Brussels with parts of their national sovereignty. But exactly that is the problem. The European Union has grown far too fast. To the extent that there is question of EU integration at all, it has moved ‘horizontally’. Under US pressure, Union enlargement could not proceed quickly enough, and preferably in an easterly direction, against Russia, the great enemy.

The result has been a patchwork of 28, and post-Brexit 27, member states of completely different economic development, population size, language and culture, making any move to achieve unity extremely difficult. Such a detached Union is an open invitation to the US to divide and rule it, and in doing so to continue dominating the EU. The difference with the history of the US is striking: it started with thirteen British colonies with shared sovereignty. Other states were allowed to join, provided that they endorsed the constitution and transferred sovereignty. In a federal state structure, states were given a certain degree of autonomy, but foreign policy and defence remained federal jurisdiction.

History shows that the way the US and EU view the world continues to diverge

On November 28, 2019, Carnegie Europe published a series of essays on how NATO can best serve the interests of its members. The third essay was by Sven Biscop, director at the Egmont Institute and UGent professor, whose central theme was: ‘Whether NATO will continue to exist depends on whether the US and the EU continue to share a broad outlook on the world.’ Well, history shows that that outlook continues to diverge. Examples are the exit from the Iran deal, the climate deal, the far-reaching concessions made to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that violate international law, and the sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to supply Germany. Will the US determine from whom Germany buys its natural gas?

In Biscop’s view, the US and the EU are the two most important partners in NATO. One can argue with that. The EU does not act as a single member. Large member states Germany and France lead the European club and are not always aligned. The EU is not an equal partner. The US dominates, and gives the impression that its proposals should rather serve its own interests. And the US is exerting heavy pressure within NATO to buy American weaponry, think of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that RAND portrays as ‘practically useless’, irrespective of whether combat aircraft fit into a modern defense policy.

China knows how to exploit European divisions

Biscop is pleased to note that for the first time since World War II, Europe is no longer the primary theater for American strategy. Yet, in Biscop’s view, Europe is useful to the US: with Europe on its side, the US is in a much better position to compete with China. Once again, a somewhat unworldly statement. Surely, the EU does not have a uniform China policy. Knowing very well how to exploit the divisions in the Union, China has concluded important bilateral deals with countries like Greece, Italy and even Luxembourg, and it has bought at least 360 companies in Europe in the last ten years, especially in the United Kingdom and Germany. Biscop may well claim that deterring Russia will become the most important goal for European NATO-members, the question to be asked is: deter from what, where does Europe see Russian aggression?

Biscop is right to say that the combative style of the Trump government increases the difference in views on China, and that opposing views on Syria, Iran and trade have further blurred the relationship. Biscop is also right to say that this problem should not be discussed in a NATO context. But why doesn’t Biscop argue for placing an organisation like the OPCW on the NATO agenda? It appears the chemical watchdog can be used at will by the US, UK and France to provoke military attacks that should lead to the overthrow of the legitimate government of an OPCW member. Such an organization is no longer useful, and something is utterly wrong with the behaviour of major powers.

Biscop is urging the US to take the EU seriously and to get into the habit of discussing matters that concern both parties. A strong discussion about strategy does not in itself make differences disappear, but the issues have in any case been discussed. One can hope that Biscop’s call to the Americans will be heard. But after all, it is no more than a plea for diplomacy that lubricates relations between states. Exactly that is not the strongest aspect of American foreign policy. America is used to exerting pressure, threatening with sanctions, a technique to which Europe or an individual member state all too often concedes. But what is not can still come.

Europe will never be a United States, and a European army is not in the cards

On December 17, 2019, the Egmont Institute organised a working lunch with a senior European official on the EU’s ambition to become an autonomous global player, defending and promoting its interests through ‘hard power’. It is an issue that apparently is on the strategic agenda of the newly appointed commission. The speaker criticised, as could be expected, the divisions between the member states, but his solutions were poorly: we have to work on our mindset, improve institutional functioning, break the power of the dollar by strengthening the euro. But Europe will never become a United States, and a European army is not in the cards, he told his audience.

The discourse all boiled down to the rhetorical question ‘how do we achieve that strategic autonomy’. Unfortunately, that is the wrong question. To become a global player, Europe must free itself from the American yoke. Autonomy is not enough, we must become independent. America will only respect us if we take on our own defence and request America to kindly withdraw its troops and 480 nuclear weapons from Europe. We must review our alliances. We have alienated Russia that had lost the Cold War. Russia is our European neighbour. But the US will not receive well a European rapprochement with Russia. That is only true, but it will be a unique opportunity to show our backbone, show that we mean it.

Is that the way forward, or is it ‘swearing in church’, rocking the boat? Biscop recently observed that such a way of thinking does little good for the credibility of the person foolhardy enough to put forward the idea. Maybe he’s right. But if it depends on French president Macron, who declared NATO brain-dead and who sticked to that position, it just might go that way. Whether he will get the noses of the rest of the EU in one direction in the short term seems to be out of the question. It will take at least one generation to reach that stage, and by then the Chinese will have confronted us with the facts.

So the only options available to us seem to be: assemble a core Europe around Macron’s France in the foreseeable future, or remain the US’s eternal puppet.

A version in Dutch of this article first appeared on De Wereld Morgen and Geopolitiek in context

Auteur: Paul Lookman

Details are available on page ‘Geopolitiek in context - mission and credentials’.

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