This blog is part of ENGAGE, a project that examines challenges to global governance and EU external action. A consortium of thirteen academic institutions and think tanks seeks to assess the EU’s ability to harness all its foreign policy tools and identify ways to strengthen the EU as a global actor.
Andrew CotteyProfessor in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork
European strategic autonomy has always been an amorphous and rhetorical concept. Among EU member states there is a spectrum of positions, ranging from Europeanists supportive of an EU more independent of the United States to committed Atlanticists.
When then EU High Representative Federica Mogherini made strategic autonomy a centerpiece of the 2016 EU Global Strategy, some member states were wary. They were willing to live with the language because it did not involve very specific commitments.
There has also long been a gap between rhetoric and delivery on strategic autonomy. Real autonomy from the United States on defense would require significantly increasing defense spending and/or much deeper integration—a Euro moment—in defense. EU member states have not been willing to take these steps.
What then has changed with Russia’s war on Ukraine? First, the war has reinforced the centrality of U.S. political leadership and military power in European security, weakening the position of those who argue that Europe should aim to go it alone.
Second, European states are now significantly increasing defense spending. They are doing so, however, in a context where Russia is the primary threat and NATO is the primary framework for collective military planning—pointing away from European strategic autonomy.
Raluca CsernatoniFellow at Carnegie Europe
As the EU’s security and defense policy is experiencing a watershed moment given the ongoing war in Ukraine, is “strategic autonomy” fit for purpose to frame thinking on the EU’s role as a geopolitical and defense actor? Has it ever been?
The proliferation of other concepts such as “strategic sovereignty” and “European (technological) sovereignty” seems to suggest that the notion has fallen out of fashion in Brussels and other EU capitals. It has also become hopelessly tarnished in Central and Eastern Europe, not only due to the concept’s suspected anti-Atlanticist undertones, but also because the war has showcased the failings of European security and defense.
Advocates of the concept have emphasized that by enhancing its “strategic autonomy” the union will contribute positively to Euro-Atlantic security and complement NATO efforts. However, this ambitious vision is yet to be fully translated into collective political will and concrete actions.
From European reliance on critical supply chains, dwindling defense investments, and lagging technological innovation and full-spectrum capability development, to inefficiencies in arms procurement, the war has consolidated the primacy of NATO, which remains the foundation of collective defense. It has also highlighted the central role of the United States in European security and defense, in terms of both (geo)political leadership and operational support.
What is certain is that endless theoretical debates on whether “strategic autonomy” is or is not obsolete are not helpful; rather, practical steps are needed for the EU to move closer toward becoming a more credible and stronger security and defense actor.
Carme ColominaSenior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)
The very nature of the concept of strategic autonomy is undergoing transformation, along with European defense itself. The Russian invasion of Ukraine became the unpredictable trigger that has pushed the European Union as a whole and many of its members in particular, to rethink their own security. The old dilemma between Europeanists versus Atlanticists has been altered by this urgency, the mutual need, and the new balances of power illuminated by a process of rearmament in which NATO seems to have won the game.
Europeans continue to be aware of the limits of their deterrent capacity in a scenario of armed peace. However, strategic influence does not derive automatically from robust weapons but from the will to act. It is a political option. And the EU, beyond EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s appeals to the use of the “language of power,” knows that its contribution to global security has been built on its economic and regulatory power, on its commitment to a rules-based international order, long eroded and now threatened with its dismantlement depending on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.
That is why, in this context, Brussels tries to develop a concept of strategic autonomy that goes far beyond defensive integration, and one that is built through initiatives and legislation to strengthen resilience and aimed at reducing the external dependence of the EU in key matters such as energy, rare earths or technology.
Marta DassùSenior Director of European Affairs at The Aspen Institute
The main weakness of European defense stems from the lack of a joint strategic assessment of risks and threats and the unwillingness to actually pool resources—and command posts. This, in turn, has hindered an effective procurement mechanism to maximize—or at least rationalize—aggregate capabilities.
As this situation has barely changed even with the (second) Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO inevitably remains the key pillar of European security and defense. The EU has not necessarily been damaged by this recognition, however, provided it can now commit to rethinking its priorities. Yet, it should do so starting not from defense, but from a different kind of strategic autonomy: it should focus on the ability to cope with a challenging global economic-technological environment in which the citizens’ wellbeing is threatened by various disruptive factors, such as energy supplies and key technologies, that are only indirectly related to military issues.
Strategic autonomy in defense means putting the cart before the horse, because other key power dimensions need to be fully mobilized at the EU level before any tangible benefit can be achieved in strictly military terms. The priority is to act effectively, not become autonomous from the United States—by far the EU’s closest ally.
Olivier de FranceSenior research fellow at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs
It is always tempting to give a pithy answer to a good, crisp question. In this particular case, I must put my hands up and say I do not have one. It all depends on what we read into the question.
If we think of strategic autonomy in the strongest (i.e. French) sense of the word, and of Europe as the European Union, then the EU’s strategic autonomy is not over because it has never yet truly existed. The EU’s autonomy of interpretation, of decision, and of action has always depended on a broader European one. In turn, European strategic autonomy has always relied on a broader “Western” one. Overall, European strategic autonomy has thus never been quite strategic, European, or indeed autonomous.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is also impossible to interpret without factoring in its nuclear dimension. In this context, Europe’s autonomy of decision, and indeed of action, cannot and should not exist in isolation from British or American endeavors.
Conversely, there are also areas of European industry, capabilities, operations, and strategy which are not and never have been dependent on outside endeavours—and are indeed (slowly) expanding. A more layered, long-term understanding of European strategic autonomy would therefore no doubt yield an answer less pithy still.
John R. DeniResearch professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute
Insofar as strategic autonomy means the development and employment of an independent European military capable of projecting force across time and distance, it will remain an elusive dream. Regardless of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the decision to expend blood and treasure remains the responsibility of individual European states. This will remain the case for the foreseeable future.
Certainly, the war has caused NATO’s stock to rise, primarily because those European countries threatened most by Russia place more trust in the United States than they do in the principal champion of strategic autonomy—France. This is unsurprising given NATO’s (and America’s) role on the ground in Central and Eastern Europe for many years and especially since 2014… and President Macron’s repeated missteps with regard to his allies to the east.
Instead of strategic autonomy, leading countries like Germany, France, Italy, and the UK must focus on reacquiring national autonomy. For instance, each of these countries ought to be capable of deploying a corps (around 40,000 troops) with appropriate air, naval, cyber, space, and special operation forces elements for a year, without augmentation or support from America, smaller allies, or each other. Doing so would ultimately enable Europe to play a greater role, with or without America.
The views expressed above are the author’s own.
Ulrike FrankeSenior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
No, but Olaf Scholz has given it a deadly blow with his announcement that no matter what other Europeans want to do regarding main battle tank deliveries to Ukraine (Poland, Finland), or are doing (UK), the only relevant actor for him is the United States.
Over the last months, European strategic autonomy has received a reality check. The idea—the ideal!—of European strategic autonomy (or European Sovereignty, the term that the Germans, and myself, prefer) remains intact. Europe needs to become stronger and more united, less immediately dependent on a United States which is less and less keen to focus its efforts, attention, and money on Europe.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown us the urgency of moving forward on European strategic autonomy—this is not EU navel-gazing, this is needed in a changed world. And the invasion has shown the limits of European strategic autonomy as it is today: Europe remains massively reliant on U.S. leadership and U.S. capabilities. Europeans need to continue the work to become more capable and able to stand up for themselves and to prop up the European pillar of NATO. This is needed now more than ever.
Alena KudzkoDirector of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the folly of European strategic autonomy, there is still a consensus that Europe needs to do considerably more to provide for its own defense and security.
The primacy of NATO in territorial defense and deterrence is indisputable. But the imbalance in contributions between the United States and Europe and challenges in the Indo-Pacific have become even more pronounced.
Yet Europe will need to work through trust and leadership issues to make headway. Central Europeans, buoyed by their prescient warnings about the Kremlin’s intentions and their top-of-the-pack contributions to Ukraine, believe they hold both the relevant expertise and moral high ground to shape European security policy. These countries, nevertheless, feel they are still not listened to adequately.
President Emmanuel Macron’s recent remarks about the need for future relations with Russia sow doubt regarding France’s reliability. And Germany’s decision to send Marder vehicles and the Patriot system to Ukraine more than likely happened following U.S. pressure.
German foot-dragging on the authorization of Leopard 2 tanks for Ukraine, furthermore, undercuts the idea of joint procurement or production of weapons in Europe. Why have weapons if Germany will never actually allow countries to put them to their intended use?
NATO and military capabilities alone, however, will not be sufficient for effective deterrence and defense. The EU, to this end, is rightly focused on bolstering the connection between the EU and NATO and aligning the EU’s economic, technology, sanctions, and political leverage with its shared security goals.
Eva MichaelsBeatriu de Pinós research fellow at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals
Russia’s war against Ukraine should have been a critical juncture increasing the resolve of EU members to strengthen the capability and action aspects of strategic autonomy in European defense and security. Instead, it again highlighted how Europe lacks the willingness to act autonomously even when confronted with matters of utmost strategic importance.
European strategic autonomy is now on indefinite gardening leave as confidence in the EU as a serious security actor has been shaken to its core, but it will eventually return. As a practical matter, the sunk costs and natural ability of EU institutions to weather even the worst storms will ensure strategic autonomy revives at some point.
But fundamentally, Europeans simply cannot evade the question of how to prioritize their capacity for territorial defense in addition to playing a wider security role on the European periphery. While NATO and the United States are now in the driver’s seat for the provision of European security, America’s long-term strategic priorities lie in the Indo-Pacific and the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November 2024 may well undermine NATO. Now is the time to radically adapt the debate around strategic autonomy, learn the right lessons, and make the necessary changes.
George PagoulatosDirector General at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)
When faced with foreign security threats of systemic proportions, such as from a nuclear military power like Russia, EU defense can only be effective in the transatlantic alliance framework. As long as Russia constitutes the biggest security threat for a number of EU member states, NATO will remain the main security provider in Europe.
However, European strategic autonomy is not over, and should not be over. It still makes sense to have a developed EU pillar within the Euro-Atlantic alliance framework, with complementarity, avoiding duplication. Strategic autonomy is desirable in terms of Europe developing the defense capabilities to reduce dependence on the United States, something U.S. administrations have also been keen to promote. A European defense industry through common procurement is also a priority.
European strategic autonomy is important when it comes to security challenges deemed crucial for the EU but less so for NATO, for example in Africa or the East Mediterranean. The EU should be able to define its own interests and collective objectives, and to enlist sufficient instruments to pursue them. And sometimes interests and priorities may diverge between the EU and NATO. The motto should be: together when possible, alone when necessary.
Sten RynningProfessor in the Faculty of Business and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Denmark
European strategic autonomy is over before it really began. It was always just a vision of change, of “Europe” cohering to take charge of its own destiny in a diverse world. But for as long as this vision has been around—some seventy years—Europe has failed to cohere. France is a champion of the vision, but it is a lonely voice.
Today, it is not only that the war in Ukraine highlights weaknesses in Europe’s defense, and thus Europe’s dependence on NATO. It is also that Europe is afflicted by nationalism, as are other regions, including the United States. Europe’s political muscle is thus underdeveloped, and this will not seriously change.
Europe does have considerable interests—trade, direct investments, technology security, and regional stability, just to mention a few. And the French do have a very good point: if you do not stand up for yourself in international politics, you cease to be a player. But Europe must realize that it can best pursue its voice and interests in a transatlantic partnership. Outside of this partnership, Europe is a geographical appendix. Inside this partnership, it can be a player. Strategic influence, not autonomy, should thus be Europe’s concern.
Ester SabatinoResearch analyst for Defence and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)-Europe
Since 2016 there have been several small steps toward European strategic autonomy, both in terms of the tools available to EU member states—including the new European Defence Industry Reinforcement—or the composition of defense expenditure. Nonetheless, as showed in the defense investment gap analysis, armament stockpiles are not satisfactory and need to be first replenished and then increased in volumes and upgraded, to have the functional and respectful operational capacity required to reach any kind of strategic autonomy.
No doubt the Russian invasion of Ukraine has further slowed down the process: EU member states have been politically divided on the support to Ukraine and stockpiles have been further depleted, compelling armament acquisitions favoring non-EU producers. All this suggests limited political and strategic commitment of European governments toward European strategic autonomy.
Furthermore, the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining NATO and the latest joint declaration on EU-NATO cooperation might lead the most skeptical observers to declare European strategic autonomy over. However, this would be a hasty judgement. While it is possible to say that the EU has not reached strategic autonomy, the concept has never been truly linked to NATO.
Moreover, the European Commission is engaged in promoting and strengthening the EU defense landscape and cooperation in recent years and is determined in avoiding failure. What is missing is a clearer and faster national commitment to it.
Monika SusAssociate professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences
Yes and no. Fortunately the endless and unproductive debate about the meaning of the term is indeed over. This discussion has not contributed much, but has only antagonized European countries among themselves, as well as part of the American establishment. Gone, too, are the days when Europeans felt safe and did not have to worry about having sufficient capabilities to ensure their own security. The Russian invasion of Ukraine showed how wrong they were in this naive belief.
And it didn’t, because what didn’t end and rather became more urgent than ever, was the belief that Europe needed to become more self-reliant in order to be able to ensure its security. This time, however, let’s talk and proceed to smart European strategic autonomy. Smart autonomy means acting alone when necessary, but also alongside allies—primarily the United States and the UK—and not in isolation from them. In this context, recent projects to strengthen European defense capabilities, for example through the European Defence Industry Reinforcement through common Procurement Act (EDIRPA), make a lot of sense if member states put their weight behind them and start integrating their defense sectors.
Benjamin TallisSenior Research Fellow, Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe
Strategic autonomy is dead. And even if it weren’t, it should be, as it was never the answer. The questions that prompted its development are, however, still very much alive: how Europeans can better provide for their security in a changing world; and how they can and should contribute to the type of regional and global ordering that boosts this security but also allows liberal and democratic societies to flourish.
The Central and Eastern European states never liked strategic autonomy imagined as autonomy from the United States, expressed through an EU charting a “middle course” between America and China. They doubted the EU’s capacity to develop and deploy hard power and didn’t trust that either France or Germany would, or even could, protect them, their interests, and liberal ordering if push came to shove.
Moreover, pursuing hard power would leave the EU dangerously out of its depth and would risk undermining its capacity to provide other more progressive kinds of security—leaving the hard stuff to NATO. Europeans should be seeking integrated, not autonomous, ways to revive and play a stronger role in that partnership—not only to defend but to reform liberal democracy and renew the hope of progress: NATO to survive, the EU to thrive.
Paul TaylorContributing editor at Politico Europe
No! But its meaning has shifted from building a fully independent EU defense to enabling the EU and member states to decide and act autonomously when necessary and avoid excessive dependence on other powers, whether in the military, industrial, space, energy, or public health domains.
While the United States has fully reengaged in European security because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, its future strategic focus is on China. No one disputes NATO’s centrality in collective defense. But Europe will need capabilities to tackle threats and manage crises, for example in its Southern neighborhood where the United States and NATO may not be engaged. This may involve the EU or coalitions of the willing. Europeans need their own intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance, airlift/sealift and air-to-air refuelling to conduct such operations, as well as weapons that work and ammunition stocks. They cannot rely on the United States forever.
Given political sensitivities, it’s better to talk of building European capabilities for NATO, EU, national, and coalition contingencies. Depressingly, European industrial cooperation is barely advancing despite increased military budgets.
Does it matter if Europeans buy U.S. arms? No, where they offer a quick fix. But yes, if it means Europe lacks the industrial capacity to decide and act autonomously.
Anna WieslanderDirector for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council
Yes, at least in the short term, it seems as if “reality killed the cat.” Already before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, France adopted a more sobering stance. French defense minister Florence Parly emphasized at the Munich Security Conference in 2022 that European defense was for the (distant) future. This was in sharp contrast to President Macron’s famous 2019 “brain-death of NATO” interview in the Economist 2019, where he claimed that “in [his] opinion, Europe has the capacity to defend itself.”
The recent EU initiatives on defense tend to be complementary to NATO and draw on the particular strengths of the union, which is a step in the right direction. Pushing this further would be the creation of a solid European pillar in the alliance. Such a pillar would consist both of more European military capabilities, such as troop contributions and investments in enablers and societal robustness, as well as a stronger united European voice. Sweden and Finland could serve as important bridge-builders between the EU and NATO on projects such as military mobility. The pillar would need to be broader than the EU and include not least the UK, but also other non-EU allies.
In short, Europe would be more of the partner that the United States has been asking for. However, the United States would still lead, and the interdependence across the Atlantic would prevail. This is also the preference of a majority of European states, who never really understood the meaning of strategic autonomy.