The urgency of European strategic autonomy is more pronounced than ever

The urgency of European strategic autonomy is more pronounced than ever

Published in coordination with the 2024 Global Security Forum, of which Defense One is a media partner.

European strategic autonomy, strategic independence, and emancipation—these concepts have been ambiguously defined and, consequently, unconvincingly operationalized since they became buzzwords after the publication of the 2016 EU Global Strategy. While the Trump presidency may have awoken Europe to the transatlantic partnership’s fragility, particularly as the U.S. under different administrations seems keen to redefine its global leadership, the current turbulent European security landscape renders the EU’s ability to defend itself more relevant and challenging than ever. Greater strategic autonomy will require rapid defense integration among EU member states, an emphasis on understanding the perceptions and requirements of its Central and Eastern member states, and a commitment to a strong European pillar in the NATO structure that can at least maintain a first line of defense in case of strained U.S. capabilities.  

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the conflict between Israel and Hamas and its ripple effects, the subsequent escalating terror risk, and the potential shift in U.S. strategic focus towards Asia underscore the importance of Europe’s capability to sustainably defend itself. The need for greater strategic autonomy has been the issue du jour for the past eight years, but, as concluded by French President Emmanuel Macron recently in a speech at the Sorbonne, it has not been a great success. While strides have been made through investment in a European defense industrial base and operational capabilities such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation, these initiatives do not measure up to the current moment. Macron cautions that ensuring “a credible defense of the European continent,” particularly in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is imperative. Russian revanchism and hybrid threats have exposed Europe’s precarious dependencies across several strategic spheres, including energy, critical industries, and defensive capabilities.  

It is not just Russian aggression and interference on its eastern flank that should propel the EU and its electorate to swiftly invest in its defensive capabilities. The upcoming presidential elections in the United States could seriously shake up those officials who have celebrated the revival of NATO. The potential re-election of Donald Trump could cause significant disruption to the transatlantic relationship come November. A second Trump administration might intensify tendencies towards isolationism, potentially leading to the abandonment of NATO and, most likely, diminished U.S. backing for Ukraine, which may further embolden Russia. Consequently, Europe would face increased pressure to assume greater responsibility for its security and defense.

While this scenario could expedite Europe’s pursuit of strategic autonomy, it could also be too little too late. Regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, the U.S. is increasingly pivoting toward Asia, with the Hamas-Israel conflict spiraling into a regional conflict and the continued tensions with China requiring significant resources in case of aggression in Taiwan and the South China Sea.  

Moreover, the increasing popularity of Ukraine-skeptic far-right populists in the polls for the upcoming June EU parliamentary elections could further complicate efforts towards greater defense integration. The far-right is currently forecast to make significant gains electorally across the EU, projected to add 30 to 60 EU parliamentary seats—rising to 22 to 25 percent of the total parliament. Although some radical-right parties have walked back some of their stauncher Ukraine-skeptic positions, and others such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni have emerged as consistent allies, the emerging connections between some far-right politicians and Russia—including allegations in some cases of being paid to promote pro-Russian positions—could indicate impediments to integration.

The risk has jolted the European Commission enough to include measures in its next sanctions package to bar EU political parties from accepting funding from Russia. On other issues, the far-right, even when not in the majority, has managed to mainstream its priorities at the EU level as well as pull more moderate parties further to the right, particularly on the issue of migration. Understanding and mitigating these potential complications and finding the appropriate messaging that will connect with EU voters and states will be key to ensuring that the EU’s defense capabilities are adequate to meet the moment.

Concretely, Europe must pursue a dramatic increase in its defense capabilities right now. Europeans should be able to hold a first line of defense in case of Russian aggression and become Ukraine’s primary source of military support in the near term. To achieve this, the EU must make substantial investments to support the joint procurement of the same military equipment across member states. It also means revisiting the Common Security and Defense Policy to make integrated EU defense seamless. The main obstacle here will be understanding and redressing the hesitations felt by Central and Eastern Europeans in this shift towards prioritizing ESA and getting Germany to abandon its obsolete utopian conceptualization of European defense.

Lastly, investments should redress Europe’s clear deficit vis-à-vis Russia: the EU should collectively balance Russia’s defense production capacity. Simultaneously, the EU must strengthen the European pillar of NATO in partnership with Norway and the UK. While, as pointed out before, NATO’s future shape is not entirely clear as U.S. engagements may change, the European pillar of NATO is ultimately in the hands of Europe.  NATO’s military planning, scenarios, and exercises should aim to make Europe capable of maintaining a first line of defense, even if U.S. capabilities are potentially diverted to Asia or elsewhere in the world. The EU should consider the worst-case scenario, a full-scale Chinese invasion of Taiwan and the consequent U.S. response, to effectively plan its defense. Considering Russia’s aggression and shifting U.S. priorities, Europe’s credible defense capabilities and an accompanying robust defense industrial base are now a sine qua non.

Clara Broekaert is a research analyst at The Soufan Center.

Michaela Millender is a program officer at The Soufan Center.

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