The European Security Conundrum: Between “Strategic Autonomy” and Alliance
The issue of European security is often misunderstood because it covers multiple realities. Guaranteeing Europe’s security means preparing for an attack on its territory, which increasingly coincides with that of NATO members.
It also means having the capacity to intervene on external territories, when it comes to eliminating a potential threat on its periphery, and defending an attacked allied country, whether it is a member of NATO or not. Naturally, it includes a dimension of protection against a domestic menace, such as a terrorist threat.
Security has many facets in addition to conventional challenges: the fight against information manipulation and foreign interference, the fight against cybercrime, and, as is often forgotten, the fight against corruption, on which some of these threats proliferate. Finally, our security is linked to the credibility of our conventional and nuclear deterrence, but also to other forms of this deterrence such as sanctions and lawfare.
It is in this already complex context that several other debates have collided: on strategic autonomy, the respective roles of NATO and the European Security and Defence Policy, and, more generally, the question of the transatlantic link. These questions have been given dramatic topicality by Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine, both by imposing an immediate response and by forcing an urgent upgrade of our instruments of action.
By taking up the notion, coined in 2010 long before he became president, Emmanuel Macron has raised questions, partly due to the multiple meanings of this idea.
European Strategic Autonomy: A Polysemous Concept
In a first sense, upstream, the notion is easily understood. Indeed, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the risk of dependence on revisionist powers for energy, raw materials, and strategic technologies and products constitutes a major weakness, giving these states the power to blackmail democracies. Reducing or even eliminating this dependence is a priority. The EU has largely succeeded in doing without Russian gas and oil but is still excessively dependent on certain raw materials and technologies from the People’s Republic of China.
A second dimension of the term is linked to the potential character that European strategic autonomy may have. Thus, when the United States is absent in a fundamental dimension of our interests and security, it requires that the EU be provided with the means to intervene. This was the case during France’s interventions in the Sahel, sometimes supported by certain European partners and, moreover, also helped by American military intelligence. But these interventions could not have had a sufficient dimension due to the lack of a direct European military intervention capability.
Another more tragic example was President Obama’s refusal to intervene in Syria after the Assad regime’s chemical attacks on Ghouta in 2013, thus refusing to apply the “red lines” that he himself had defined. While the British House of Commons also refused, France found itself alone in supporting such an operation. A European intervention capability would have made it possible to carry out strikes against the regime, but Paris could not go alone.
It is also known that without massive weapons supplies by the United States, Kyiv would not have been able to resist the Russian assaults, while the EU alone would not have had the military resources to defend Ukraine. Some legitimately speculate what would have happened had Donald Trump, rather than Joe Biden, been in the White House at this time. Therefore, one has to wonder what might happen should a future American president decide to abstain in the event Europe were threatened and be reluctant to use Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. One has to remember that its application is by no means automatic.
For all that, strategic autonomy could not define a specific path for Europe within the Alliance and the quest for a distinction for itself. Just as it was legitimate for certain EU states not to support the American military intervention in Iraq in 2003, so too, in the face of threats from revisionist regimes, to seek at all costs to make a difference between the Allies would be to play into the hands of those who seek to drive a wedge between the democracies. In short, any affirmation of strategic autonomy can only be heard and accepted as an even stronger determination. If there ever were to be strategic autonomy, it must be a benefit – not a detriment.
Common Security and Collective Defence
The debate on common European security and defence is also disturbed by frequent confusion between security and collective defence. The latter is today ensured by NATO’s Article 5. Some criticise the notion of strategic autonomy for claiming to replace in a European framework the security guarantee provided by the Atlantic Alliance. Article 42-7 of the Treaty on European Union, which deals with mutual assistance in the event of aggression – although theoretically binding – does not have the same scope as Article 5. In practical and operational terms, the application of Article 42-7 would most likely take place within the framework of NATO, with a decisive role for American forces.
A fortiori, if the collective defence is based essentially on conventional forces, nuclear deterrence is a determining element. Most often referred to as the “nuclear umbrella,” it is provided by the American and British nuclear forces integrated into NATO. For their part, French nuclear forces are not subject to a deterrent extended to other European countries, even though the security of French national territory is dependent on the security of the European Union, as successive French presidents have recalled. Since Brexit, France has become the only nuclear power in the EU. It would be difficult – in the eyes of its government as well as those of the other member states – for the nuclear umbrella to be deployed exclusively by France.
Most experts also consider that if the European Union were to ensure its own conventional deterrence, it would require a defence budget of not 2% but 6-7 % of GDP, which would be unlikely for the member states to reach. Therefore, an indispensable increase in the defence budgets of EU member states – accompanied by larger arms and munitions production capacities – would not be aimed at ensuring an autonomous mutual collective defence but at reinforcing it as a complement to extra-European (mainly American) means.
Strengthening of intra-European defence cooperation capabilities is fundamental. However, until now, the initiatives launched in this area have not been sufficiently financed. An excellent example is the European Defence Fund (EDF), responsible for research and the development of joint projects, which remains endowed with an envelope of 7.9 billion euros for the period 2021-27 and is far from enough. The main joint projects – themselves still limited to certain countries – are bilateral.
Thus, the development of the means for Europe to ensure its security –through external operations that few states are currently able to conduct and control – does not correspond to what military experts call “collective defence.” The EU must be able to deploy its own means of intervention, which does not mean setting up a European army. The latter seems destined to remain an abstract idea due to each country’s own military culture, uncertainties about the chain of command, and the absence of a legitimate head within the EU to define a political strategy. One does not see an integrated EU military command being added to that of NATO. It does not mean, however, that European countries should not be able to launch joint operations within the framework of a UN resolution independently of NATO. Being vague about strategic autonomy creates confusion.
The Transatlantic Relationship: Between Indispensability and Uncertainty
The transatlantic link is vital to Europe’s security and defence today – and this fundamental fact is unlikely to change in the next 30 years. When mentioning Europe, one must necessarily include European countries beyond what the EU is today, such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus.
These are just facts: without the United States, neither Ukraine nor Moldova nor Georgia can regain sovereignty over their territories. The total defeat of Russia in Ukraine, which only Washington with its Allies can enable, will have virtuous long-term consequences on other countries threatened by Moscow or still in its orbit. The same applies to Syria and parts of Africa. To paraphrase a former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, the fate of Georgia, Moldova, and Belarus – and that of Europe – will be decided in Ukraine.
However, this linking can also give a dizzy feeling — and it is gripping us right now. As much as American military support to Ukraine has been decisive, we must note that it remains somewhat halfway, insufficient to give Kyiv the means of total victory. Failure to deliver fighter jets and long-range missiles is accompanied by the talk of a long war that would bring even more Ukrainian civilian casualties.
Some continue to discuss the possibility of peace negotiations. The liberation of all occupied Ukrainian territories, the punishment of imprescriptible crimes, and the return of Ukrainian children deported to Russia are non-negotiable points – neither in terms of law nor by virtue of security considerations. It must be constantly recalled that the enforcement of international law cannot be mediated.
Overused phrases – such as “whatever it takes” or “as long as it takes” – may seem like full support for Ukraine. In reality, they tend to indicate an addiction to war. The uncomfortable truth is that had the United States wanted to, it could have ended the war already. The regular invocation of so-called “red lines” is, ultimately, a Kremlin-friendly narrative that aims to dissuade us from any resolute action. At times, it appears as if Washington is not yet committed to the total defeat of the Russian regime. However, despite a firmer and more coherent position of several European countries, notably the Baltic States, the Europeans remain deprived of the means to act alone.
The prospects – by definition uncertain – of the upcoming American elections reinforce doubts that are recurrent. They were previously expressed in certain Asian countries at the beginning of the 2010s, following Barack Obama’s inaction in Syria, or the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
In the meantime, Europeans will have to live in a paradox. On the one hand, they must do everything to strengthen the transatlantic alliance in order to offer a united front to the revisionist powers without taking the risk of giving the impression of division. On the other hand, they must drastically strengthen their intervention capabilities within the joint framework of the European Security and Defence Policy and NATO. And the first step in this struggle is to win the war – our war.