European strategic autonomy after the war in Ukraine

The concept of “European strategic autonomy” began to gain ground in discussions in 2020, when the needs related to the pandemic and the perception of the great distance between the Trump presidency in the United States and the European Union strengthened demands for an independent capability. However, it should immediately be stressed that the initial French vision pressed for military independence for the European Union, which was intended to include distancing itself from NATO, while other countries, Germany first and foremost, adhered to concepts of technological and industrial sovereignty, meaning the need to be able to count on a protected supply and production chain in Europe. But in any case, from 2021 onwards, the issue began to loom large in the counsels of Europe.

It even received an official formulation that included the Strategic Compass, the European defence project adopted last March. In this way, strategic autonomy has become a widely shared need and now appears as a federating issue in Europe. But the war in Ukraine has in fact led to a revival of NATO for Europe’s defence. Faced with the scenario of a Russian ground attack on European soil, the United States has resumed its historic role as the organiser of the collective defence of Western Europe to ensure the continuity of support for Ukraine.

European countries have not failed to support Ukraine, but the centrality of military issues has brought NATO and the US back to the centre of the game. The return of a high-intensity land war being fought on European soil somehow caught the members of the European Union off guard, when they were already projecting themselves into a post-modern world where they would accelerate a series of commercial, technological or regulatory policies. By contrast, the current wartime scenario has produced a return to the needs of defence, effectively emptying the military significance of European strategic autonomy of much of its contents and putting an end to its adoption for the time being. Hence, in the current context, this leaves no scope for the French vision of strategic autonomy, in which Europe would endow itself with a military capability of its own, independent of the United States. Despite this, the evolution of US political cycles remains uncertain, and a return of Trump to the White House in 2025 could revive the plan if transatlantic relations were to deteriorate again. But it has to be considered that the war in Ukraine will have a long-term structuring effect. However the situation plays out, the Russian threat has again become the main European concern, and NATO provides a safe haven in such a situation.

So the issue of European strategic independence will have to develop along different lines. It allows us to describe a political vision in which Europe recognises that it needs to increase its independence from other powers and exercise greater sovereignty over production in the broad sense. The war in Ukraine is compelling everyone to recognise the need for independence in acquiring energy supplies for Europe, an element that has now become strategic. We have also seen how the Von Der Leyen Commission has insisted on technological sovereignty. European Commissioner Thierry Breton has been insisting since 2019 on the need for Europe to recover control of technological production to avoid a dependency that could cause problems in future. Obviously this argument has been strengthened by the Covid 19 pandemic and today it is further bolstered by the energy issue. We observe a broad consensus on European strategic independence, a political priority that incorporates active policies on the part of the Union to enable it to procure and produce energy, while also seeking to counter the non-European industrial models based on the collection and processing of data, entailing a series of endless problems in the field of protection of rights. This vision of autonomy also reveals the growth of a form of geopolitical competition worldwide. Europe has always acted as an “idealistic” power that wanted to impose pacification on its vision of regulated relations on the whole planet. Today it is realising that other actors are playing by the classical realist rules, like the resort to warfare.

Europe also needs to be able to cope with this kind of threat, otherwise it will become irrelevant. Europe, in some ways, has emerged from a sort of “age of innocence”. Now the time has come to embrace the necessary compromise between its democratic aspirations, based on the extension of the rule of law, and the development of its own instruments to reduce its dependency on foreign countries, for economic and above all political reasons. And it is in this respect that the theme of “strategic autonomy”, perhaps used in a somewhat misleading way, remains very high on the European agenda and will help to structure the Union’s future policies.