The key is defining what “strategic autonomy” means. “Strategic” indicates autonomy in the political objectives Europe pursues, in the ways it pursues them, and in responding to the consequences of both.
There are challenges in each of these areas.
Defining objectives is easy, especially when worded in politically-correct, vague ways. But objectives become meaningful only if they correspond to the wants and concerns of the one behind them. The real question then is: does Europe have common wants and concerns?
No, because the concerns of countries in the north are different from those of the south, which are are vastly different from those of the centre and the east. One observer might say: there is a common ground between these countries, for example in wanting to curb immigration. True, but their exposure to migration is different, which means their perspectives about it, and their approaches to it, are different. And perhaps more importantly, the more observers move away from the issue of migration, the more the divergences in priorities and concerns between the different parts of the Continent become glaring.
These differences did not matter much in the past, because then, France and Germany ruled supreme. Not any more. In the past two decades, the European Union expanded; many member states became more economically independent; and many, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have gained confidence that was lacking in the period that followed their emergence from under the Soviet cloak in the early 1990s. Whereas in the past they begrudgingly accepted Franco-German leadership, now they bluntly do not.
What further complicates the issue here is that France and Germany disagree on Europe’s strategic autonomy. France seems convinced that Europe must set its own strategic objectives and have the means of pursuing them independently from the US. Germany, on the other hand, sees major value in building on the alliance with the United States.
This disagreement goes to the core of the visions about the future of the European Union and its positioning in a world that will soon be occupied by a grand confrontation between the US and China. It also dilutes the EU’s political will, which is a requirement for driving toward true strategic autonomy.
There is also a problem of resources. The two most important means for projecting power are money and arms. Money is scarce these days, given the economic contraction following COVID. And there are now many competing priorities for spending it, that leave little for deploying funds for strategic objectives outside the European Union.
Arms is even more complicated. Europe has for almost seventy years relied on NATO for its defence. The essence of the European project has been about preventing conflict in the continent. And since the end of the Cold War, the project has increasingly become about bridging the economic gap between the west and the east of the continent, and later about maintaining high standards of living for all European societies. All of this have made Europe not only instinctively wary of engaging in serious conflicts, but often actively trying to avoid them. And when it did enter conflicts, it often found its ability to use arms acutely lacking.
Today the situation is even more problematic because Britain has been one of the very few European powers with serious capacity and the will to engage in international armed conflicts. And so post-Brexit, Europe’s ability to resort to hard power will be even more diminished.
Even seeing Europe through the prism of its geography imposes challenges to the idea of strategic autonomy. European geography used to be a point of strength because in the seventy years since the end of the Second World War, Europe was the most strategically important theatre of political confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, and later Russia. In addition, Europe’s ability to transcend the horrors of the killing of forty million people on the continent in the first half of the twentieth century to a project of peace and prosperity made its story crucially important and inspiring for the entire world. And that European manufacturing became a strong driver of the global economy justified Europe’s big say in international organisations and in global governance.
But Europe is no longer the most important strategic theatre of global power dynamics; now Asia is. The essence and beautiful meanings of the European project are facing serious threats in the rise of the far-right across the continent and in the resulting dilution of true liberalism in many European countries. As for manufacturing and mastering technologies shaping the world economy, Europe is now far behind the US and several Asian countries.
All of this does not render strategic autonomy impossible. But they make it a very hard road.
Perhaps the more important question is: is strategic autonomy desirable when the world is on the verge of a new global confrontation between the US and China?
This question is timely, because the US has already started calling on Europe to stand with it in this burgeoning confrontation, and these calls will intensify because the US will need Europe’s big market as a leverage in this confrontation.
This presents Europe with a dilemma. On one hand, it might strengthen the need for strategic autonomy, if Europe is agnostic about this confrontation. On the other, however, it incentivises Europe to side by the US, its historical (and many would still argue, cultural) ally.
There is also an opportunity here for Europe. If Europe indeed sides with the US in this inevitable confrontation between the US and China, Europe can now bring to this alliance with the US more value than at other times in the past. This is because the US enters this confrontation with serious issues in its home front. America is being pulled to opposite directions regarding its own view of itself, the values of its society, and its conception of its role in the world. Here a successful coherent Europe can help America.
Europe can not, and would not want, to interfere in the complicated, multi-faceted American socio-politics. But if Europe manages to continue with its economic advance, retain functionality in its Union, while at the same time preserve that Union’s serious upholding of liberalism, Europe would have presented the US with a successful example of how to align opposing currents and fringes behind a credible centre. Europe would also have presented the US with a confident sure-footed partner.
This approach does not give Europe strategic autonomy. But it gives it a serious say in shaping the alliance of which it has been part for eight decades – this is the alliance under whose protection, and the period in which, Europe has managed to douse its demons, conjure a beautiful dream, and pursue it to a marvellous level of success. Moreover, this approach is actually achievable.