GLOBSEC: Strategic autonomy in Europe

At GLOBSEC’s 2020 Digital Stage conference, European civilians and military representatives discussed whether Europe needs to enhance its sovereign strategic capability. Harry Lye reports.

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One of the key discussions at Slovakian think tank GLOBSEC’s Digital Stage event at the end of August, focused on the European Union’s defence ambitions and shortfalls in capabilities that have so far prevented more unilateral action on behalf of the continent.

Sharing their insights were General Claudio Graziano, chairman of the European Union Military Committee, Nathalie Loiseau, chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Security and Defence, as well as European Council on Foreign Relations co-chair Carl Bildt and former chair of the NATO Military Committee General (Ret.) Knud Bartels.

European or EU strategic autonomy?

“Whose strategic autonomy are we talking about? The European Union, but then let's call it the European Union strategic autonomy and let's not call it the European strategic autonomy for the very simple reasons as was mentioned, by Madame Loiseau, there is a number of nations which are not a member of the European Union, and vice versa when we talk about NATO,” said Bartels, asking where the line would be drawn between strategic autonomy on the continent: Europe as a whole or the European Union.

In Europe, NATO remains the main security guarantee on the continent. However, some of its 30 member countries aren’t located in Europe, and others are not members of the European Union, a prime example being the UK, one of Europe’s two nuclear armed nations. The UK, having left the European Union, would of course remain a key player in strategic autonomy of the wider contributing continent through a number of non-EU initiatives and its continued dedication to NATO.

Graziano defined strategic autonomy as the ability to act with partners as the preferred option, but the ability to act alone when necessary, an idea echoed by Loiseau, saying: “That is to act with our partners and allies every time we can, but to be able to decide and act on our own every time we have to. We might have different strategic priorities with other members of NATO, for instance, which does mean that we want to weaken NATO.

“But some of us are not members of NATO. And sometimes NATO is either not interested or well equipped to address our strategic priorities. So strategic autonomy is something that we have to develop.”

The UK’s decision to leave the EU can be seen as example of these diverging priorities, as can the US’ decision to shift troops around Europe and focus more of its attention on the Pacific region.

“Strategic autonomy means the ability not to work alone or without something, but to do something with partners when it is possible, or alone when it is necessary.”

Bildt said there was an intention in Europe to gradually broaden the ‘area of questions and contingencies’ where continental powers have the ability to operate without US support in achieving their own strategic goals.

Graziano added: “Strategic autonomy means the ability not to work alone or without something, but to do something with partners when it is possible, or alone when it is necessary or, required or, appropriate; if NATO or the other organisations are not interested, or it’s not appropriate to operate in this context. In this moment it is absolutely mandatory to reach this level of the autonomy if Europe doesn't want to fail in the construction of this global strategy, and in becoming a global security provider, and be more proactive in this world with all the challenges that we have.”

Despite there being a general consensus on the need for strategic autonomy, a number of factors need to be achieved including the will to conduct Europe-only operations and commitments to shared standards that would allow European armed forces to operate together even if they are not necessarily NATO allies.

Setting standards

Bartels said once the question of defining European strategic autonomy is resolved, the second step is to create organisation on a military level.

“If we do not have a common military strategy, if we do not have a command structure, either borrowing it from NATO or having our own or using expanded national capabilities on that, and if we do not have the troops which are capable of working together and have a minimum of standardisation from an industrial and logistics perspective, it will be very difficult.”

While NATO provides a number of standards for equipment, these are not necessarily matched by all European partners. Even among NATO allies, logistics can be a problem as former Soviet member states have bridges that cannot carry the weight of alliance standard tanks, for example.

“High-end warfare in Eastern Europe versus ‘large scale Russian aggression’ could not be achieved without the help of the US.”

A higher level of organisation would allow Europe to achieve more on its own, said Bildt, explaining the limits of European autonomy: “We have strategic autonomy, there are things that we can do on our own, there's no question about that. There are quite a number of things that we don't have the ability to do; territorial defence in the East, large scale, high-end kinetic war, that is beyond our capabilities.

“But there are quite a number of other contingencies where we do have the capability in different respects where, but in my opinion, we are somewhat reluctant to use the possibilities we have.”

For example, Bildt said, high-end warfare in Eastern Europe versus ‘large scale Russian aggression’ could not be achieved without the help of the US. He added that Europe could arm itself to independently handle such a contingency, but by all metrics and studies it would take years to achieve.

Among the European Union, Bildt said there remains a reluctance to exercise military power - the last EU land operation being in 2007. Since then EU military activities have been restricted to smaller training exercises.

“There has been a distinct reluctance in Brussels to actually use military power.”

Bildt cited the operation in the Sahel as an example of Europe’s reliance on ad-hoc coalitions and the United Nations to get things done. He added: “There has been a distinct reluctance in Brussels to actually use military power. We have got the battlegroups, Paris even have the European intervention initiative, which includes the UK, which is a quarter of the military force in Europe, but, that's hasn't been used either.

“I think it's fine that the European Parliament speaks about strategic autonomy. But we still have a situation where the governments in the council are extremely reluctant, even in contingencies, to use military power.”

Instead, the EU has long relied on its soft power to achieve its ambitions, but Loiseau said the world has not gotten safer as a result: “I think that strategic autonomy is the way for Europe to be a relevant geopolitical actor. We have praised ourselves from being the ultimate soft power for decades, but, the world has not become a safer place in recent times.

“And what we have been through with the pandemic is measuring the level of our dependency, not only military dependency but dependency towards others on a number of key issues for the European Union.”