Abstract: Matters of EU security and defense and, therefore, strategy cannot be isolated from concepts such as sovereignty or national strategic culture. The key question is: How to structure/operationalize EU strategic autonomy? The answer is still at the political level. In the meantime, certain aspects of EU defense, one major one being defense of the EU borders, are better served by NATO, at least at this stage. As long as the EU does not get out of this decisional bottleneck regarding the level of ambition in matters of security and defense, big decisions will be driven by great powers. NATO remains the bedrock of EU security. A more European NATO is the healthiest next step to EU strategic autonomy, repairing the transatlantic relationship, and ultimately doing what is suitable for the people of all NATO member states.
Bottom-line-up-front: The international community is starting to see the outline of the new, post-unipolar structure. What kind of actor will the European Union (EU) be if the strategic autonomy process is still stuck at the political level?
Problem statement: What held the EU back from achieving genuine strategic autonomy in the past, and what/did anything change at the political-strategic level?
So what?: A more European NATO is the healthiest next step to EU strategic autonomy.
In medicine, a Stress Test, also called an Exercise Stress Test (EST), shows how the human heart works during physical activity. Due to the increased and accelerated heart rate caused by physical activity, an exercise stress test can reveal problems with blood flow within the heart. The Stress Test is by no means meant to diagnose a particular coronary issue, nor does it mean that the patient is “under stress”. Similarly, evaluating the current narratives around the EU Strategic Compass can be an opportunity to reveal valuable insights into the condition of the EU security and defense debate. The caveat being that the results of the test are being correctly and objectively interpreted.
Theoretically, political leaders choose the best military leaders and give them the capabilities (the means) to plan and execute (the ways) the defense of the actor (the ends). Sounds straightforward. For the EU it is not that simple. The EU’s decision-making on security and defense is undergoing a fundamentally formational phase: the EU Strategic Compass process. According to Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission for a Stronger Europe in the World, this compass is “designed to answer three questions: Which challenges and threats do we face? How can we better pool our assets and manage them effectively? And what is the best way to project Europe’s influence as both a regional and global actor?”. Essentially, we can ask: what potential problems can the compass identify and whether they are on track to being resolved? Let’s deconstruct.
Theoretically, political leaders choose the best military leaders and give them the capabilities (the means) to plan and execute (the ways) the defense of the actor (the ends). Sounds straightforward.
The European strategic autonomy process is meant to produce a comprehensive EU security and defense architecture, a credible “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible”. The threat analysis conducted during the strategic compass phase “shows clearly that Europe is in danger”. It is without a doubt a step in the right direction to hear the EU’s top diplomat confirm that the union is exposed to real security threats. These are things the EU political leadership has known for a very long time. The EU neighborhood not so long ago witnessed the only territorial appropriation in the Northern Hemisphere since WW II, the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation in 2014. There are conflicts both in the eastern and southern neighborhoods of the European Union: the war in Eastern Ukraine, the regional developments between Moldova and the breakaway state of Transnistria, the political crisis with Belarus, the Armenia Azerbaijan recurring crises, the war in Syria, as well as conflicts and instability in large parts of the Middle East. The list does not stop here. According to press reports, the Compass draft includes a concrete proposal to create an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity by 2025. Hopefully, this proposal will materialize, unlike the Helsinki Headline military capability target set for 2003 during the December 1999 European Council meeting.
Similarly, the Helsinki Headline Goal was aimed to develop a European Rapid Reaction Force. The Helsinki target was built upon the earlier bilateral Franco-British Joint Declaration adopted at St. Malo in December 1998. In 2004, a new target had to be set: the "Headline Goal 2010”. In March 2004, the EU Military Committee (EUMC) tasked the EU Military Staff (EUMS) to develop a European Union Battlegroup (EU BG) Concept – a concept meant to be “a building block within the overall approach of rapid response”. Again, the EU voiced the desire on paper, but no concrete action followed. The EU Battlegroups have to this day never been deployed. The political consensus around what actually constitutes a valid reason to do so remained as elusive a goal as ever. It is exactly at the political-strategic level that the EU BG concept encountered significant drawbacks. It remains to be seen if and what has changed at the political-strategic EU level when the Compass is being constructed.
The EU Battlegroups have to this day never been deployed. The political consensus around what actually constitutes a valid reason to do so remained as elusive a goal as ever.
According to insiders, the union should be ready to fine-tune the how, when and where the EU Rapid Deployment Capacity could be employed, and regular live exercises of the force should begin in 2023. Nothing changes the fact that the legal framework for crisis management/rapid response operations already exists, namely Article 44 of the EU Treaty allows "coalitions of the willing" to act on the EU's behalf without requiring the participation of all Member States: “Member States which are willing and have the necessary capability for such a task”. France has taken the lead in areas of strategic interest: for example, since 2011, the French Navy has maintained a permanent naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and has participated in monitoring the situation in the Middle East. One could argue that this is French national interest. Indeed, it is, but it is also in the EU’s interest to maintain stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. As long as national and union interests converge and enable a more forward-looking, strategic EU, why not contribute?
At this point in the Strategic Compass’ development process, we do not have enough information to accurately predict whether this proposal will be operationalized or not. The answer lies at the political-strategic level in the EU.
EU Political - Strategic Leadership - Is It Indeed Strategic?
So, what about the political-strategic level in Brussels? To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, whom to call if you want to talk to Europe? The easy answer is Brussels, and the real answer is complicated.
It is unclear who drives defense strategy because the EU “has never had a single foreign policy due to its members' different — and yes, at times divergent — views". Nevertheless, the ultimate goal is a common security and defense policy, an inclusive approach to the EU’s engagement. The obvious problem is that there are internal tensions in the EU, and many are linked to foreign policy and defense. Nonetheless, if the EU is really committed to being strategic, these internal tensions need to be somehow mitigated.
One dominant EU leadership narrative seems to remain the Franco-German one. In January 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel signed a new “Treaty on Franco-German Cooperation and Integration” in Aachen. This event took place 56 years after French President Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the Élysée Treaty in 1963. Completely aligned with general de Gaulle’s views on European security and defense matters, Chancellor Merkel spoke at the signing ceremony about forming a joint Franco-German European Army, and President Macron referred several times to the “responsibility” of France and Germany to lead Europe. Altogether, this posture from both leaders does not really instill trust that the EU will be inclusive in its foreign and defense policy, nor that it will be built multilaterally.
Should the EU be a 21st-century version of the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne? In the best interest of NATO, the EU and the transatlantic relationship, we can only be hopeful that the end product will include a holistic view of the EU strategic environment, with equal consideration given to input from all Member States and with comprehensive leadership, not just from two countries. Back in 2019, the reactions to the Franco-German Treaty came immediately.
In March 2019, Italy, another EU economic powerhouse, became the first developed economy to join China’s New Silk Road project. Both US and European allies expressed concern over this since the Chinese global investment program is known to be a diplomacy tool of Beijing. While these concerns carry much merit, we should also ask ourselves why a Franco-German Axis of leadership is so necessary for the EU, why can there be no genuine multilateralism? Italy was a founding member of the European Community. The Italian economy is the eighth largest in the world. If this is not good enough for European leadership, what message does this send to the other, smaller economies of the Union? Let’s not forget, leadership is also about strategic communication and what your actions say about your intentions. Chancellor Merkel herself underscored "how important trust in political leaders, science, and public discourse really is." If leadership in this context means proposing inclusive initiatives and lobbying for a mutually beneficial application, it could work. Unfortunately, it does not look like the Franco-German leadership narrative is an innocent pep rally for the EU, so it could pose a problem for the union.
Both US and European allies expressed concern over this since the Chinese global investment program is known to be a diplomacy tool of Beijing.
The national responses to the US-NATO-Russia crisis of France and respectively Germany give us a more in-depth look at where things stand. France responded concretely by offering to send French troops in a NATO framework to Romania, the host country of the NATO's Missile Shield, stationed at 99th Military Base Deveselu. President Macron extended the offer on January 19, and less than ten days later, the French Defense Minister Florence Parly landed in Bucharest, where she met with Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă. On the agenda was the security of the NATO Eastern Flank, Franco-Romanian cooperation in the field of security and defense, the development of new strategic approaches in both NATO and EU frameworks, respectively developments in Mali and the Sahel.
Discussions were not only general. They touched on specifics. France sent a technical mission along to construct a concrete blueprint for the deployment of troops once NATO votes on the matter. Concurrently, regarding the situation in Mali, Prime Minister Ciucă confirmed Romania’s readiness to participate in the Takuba Takuba Task Force, the multinational task force for combating terrorism in the border region between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
The conclusions: France made sure the world sees it is ready to lead, Romania wanted to make sure the world sees it is ready to contribute to all aspects of EU security, not just the Eastern Flank. Furthermore, France is committed to a technologically autonomous Europe, including smaller countries, like Romania. The French Minister of Defense also discussed technical-military cooperation and, more specifically, the prospects of Romania's corvette program. Win-win for France, Romania, the EU, NATO. Credible deterrence cannot exist without strength and resolve.
The diplomatic message out of Berlin is unfortunately not as clear. On the one hand, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stood right next to Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow and showed a strong position: “I came here with a thick folder – thick due to the whole array of problems we have to discuss, about which our opinions differ hugely, in part fundamentally.” On the other hand, her coalition partners blocked delivery of weapons to Ukraine and instead decided on sending 5.000 helmets.
US Dominance in NATO
Another prevailing narrative in EU security and defense discourse is US dominance. The conversation often pivots around autonomy from the senior defense partner in NATO, the US. Stephen Walt perfectly synthesized this: “There is no potential hegemon in Europe today, and the only reason that Russia looks like a threat that might conceivably require an American response is Europe’s collective unwillingness to translate its vastly superior wealth and numbers into effective military power”. In the overarching context of strategic competition between the great powers, the EU will hopefully be very cautious: it might be a coincidence that the Russian Federation frames NATO as a US-led Military block with malign intentions towards Russia, or it might not be. It is wrong to compare NATO to a strategically autonomous EU or to frame them as adversary. NATO is an alliance built by the Washington Treaty; the EU is a political union of nation-states. Different rules and different implications all together, that is precisely why the leadership angle in the EU discussion about security and defense is so sensitive and complicated. NATO has three essential core tasks: collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security. NATO also has integrated operations procedures and a clearly defined command and control structure and a clearly predetermined Area of Responsibility.
NATO is an alliance built by the Washington Treaty; the EU is a political union of nation-states. Different rules and different implications all together, that is precisely why the leadership angle in the EU discussion about security and defense is so sensitive and complicated.
Matters of EU security and defense and, therefore, strategy, a military concept by excellence, cannot be isolated from concepts such as sovereignty or national strategic culture. It is simply not feasible. On the other hand, if NATO carries out an operation, individual Allies commit troops and equipment to be placed under a unified NATO command. NATO possesses a standing command structure whereas the EU has the 5 stand-by OHQ’s in Rome, Torrejon, Mont Valerien, Larissa and Ulm (which is already double-hatted as NATO Joint Enabling Command). The EU has no standing FHQ or Component Commands. The Berlin Plus agreement provides the framework for NATO EU capability sharing. So far, the input is mainly from NATO. This is not really surprising, given that the EU is barely now going through the strategic assessment. The key question is: How to structure/operationalize EU strategic autonomy? The answer is still at the political level. In the meantime, certain aspects of EU defense, one major one being defense of the EU borders, are simply better served by NATO, at least at this stage. As long as the EU does not get out of this decisional bottleneck regarding the level of ambition in matters of security and defense, big decisions will be driven by great powers, i.e. in this case the US and the Russian Federation. The Biden Putin 2021 Summit was a clear display of great power politics: top of the agenda was the situation in Ukraine, a state on the EU border.
There is also the possibility to duplicate NATO efforts. NATO remains the bedrock of EU security. Realistically speaking, it will remain so beyond the upcoming NATO 2022 Strategic Concept and well into the medium to long term. The reconciling of national character, state national interest and EU strategic autonomy is far from materializing. It gets even more complicated when factoring in how the concept of security has widened. In the age of globalization, informational interconnectivity and climate change, all framed by renewed power competition between the US, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, territorial integrity is not the only threat to security. Influence is a very sought-after prize, the power to influence outcomes in all aspects of international affairs. Finally, there are transnational threats like climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and these can only be tackled in cooperation will all the stakeholders in the international system, especially the great powers.
Security is not exclusively militaristic, not only the defend the homeland type of discussion. Providing security also means facilitating solutions concerning challenges to freedom of navigation, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, influence campaigns meant to destabilize democratic systems of governance, weaponization of energy or migration. The current migrant buildup at the EU borders is nothing but confirmation that the nature of war has evolved. The EU’s answer to the massing of migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border offers an indirect confirmation that the union is making an effort to be more strategic. The EU decided to impose further sanctions on Minsk and stand behind Poland in its decision to seal off the border area. Clearly, this is not easy for Brussels, the EU being a fervent defender of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Nevertheless, Brussels decided to impose sanctions and not intervene in the humanitarian crisis. This shows in a poignant way that EU strategic autonomy cannot really be reached until internal political differences are effectively addressed.
The EU’s answer to the massing of migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border offers an indirect confirmation that the union is making an effort to be more strategic.
The Transatlantic Relationship - No More Excuses
It used to be that the US was considered non-supportive when it comes to EU strategic autonomy. If in the past there was doubt, at present this is no longer the case. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet declared this month during his visit to Brussels that President Joe Biden “absolutely” supports European allies developing their own, stronger military capabilities. Clearly, a “non-supportive US” is no longer an excuse for the EU not to present actionable results.
The US is undergoing its own transformation when it comes to foreign policy. While addressing the American people after the fall of Kabul, President Joe Biden essentially confirmed that the United States would stay the course set by the 2017 National Security Strategy: it will intervene militarily if it is in the direct American national interest, the two strategic competitors are the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, the US will lead with diplomacy, humanitarian aid, influence campaigns, but it will also expect regional diplomacy as well as regional engagement from allies and partners. The international community is starting to see the outline of the new, post-unipolar structure.
Notably absent from the speech was one of the leitmotifs of the last two decades in US foreign policy and Western international discourse: the liberal world order. The shift should not come as a surprise to anyone. President Trump won the White House running against the idea of the US as the guardian of the liberal world order, the Western status quo, if you will. Meanwhile, President Biden is doing what he promised his electorate during the campaign: withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, focus US foreign policy on winning the strategic competition by means of diplomacy, economic tools and cooperation with allies and partners. America is back, but 21st century America not the "pre-fall of the USSR"-US. After he was sworn in, the first speech of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was titled “A Foreign Policy for the American People”. In it, he confirmed: “When President Biden asked me to serve, he made sure that I understood that my job is to deliver for you – to make your lives more secure, create opportunity for you and your families, and tackle the global crises that are increasingly shaping your futures”. The main objective of US foreign policy is the well-being, the interests of the American people, and multilateralism is the means to conduct this foreign policy. Concurrently, the transatlantic relationship is still the bedrock of European security, just like NATO. However, the nature of the relationship is changing. The paradigm cannot automatically shift back to a pre-Trump era because the international system is not the same anymore. When US President Joe Biden says “America is back”, a genuinely strategic EU should not say: “For how long”. Instead, it should work on synchronizing NATO and EU efforts in security and defense, strengthen the European pillar of NATO by making sure capabilities are up to par and credible and, most importantly, construct internal political consensus.
The main objective of US foreign policy is the well-being, the interests of the American people, and multilateralism is the means to conduct this foreign policy. Concurrently, the transatlantic relationship is still the bedrock of European security, just like NATO.
President Biden has made concrete steps towards mending relationships with European allies. Rejoining the Paris Climate Accords happened immediately after his inauguration, and, specifically for Germany, the White House reached a deal on the handling of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. That will not do much for the strategic stability of Ukraine and implicitly for EU strategic stability at its borders. Structural vulnerabilities in the post-soviet space cannot be solved by Germany and the US reaching an understanding because the power of such an agreement effectively is reduced to its enforceability and applicability. It is common knowledge that economic sanctions were ineffective in changing state behavior both in the Nord Stream 2 context and in most other disagreements, most notably, the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. European companies responded to sanctions, but Gazprom is not an average European oil company. President Biden also met with French President Emanuel Macron after the controversy sparked by the AUKUS submarine deal, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited allies and partners in the Black Sea Region to reassure them of US commitment to stability in the region. President Biden is the biggest supporter of the EU, now it is time for the EU to put actions behind its beautiful speeches.
It looks like both Washington and the EU are working on issues, so, depending on the EU Strategic Compass direction of travel, we could be witnessing a positive change. Both the political and strategic conversation must simply say exactly that and not distract it with ideological debris. After all: “Our paradigms mold our assumptions and expectations, and thus our policies and behavior”.
It looks like both Washington and the EU are working on issues, so, depending on the EU Strategic Compass direction of travel, we could be witnessing a positive change.
The conclusions of the Stress Test are cautiously optimistic: we do not know what direction the EU will go into. What we do know is that there are still major internal disagreements, nevertheless, it looks like Brussels is tying. We, the international community, have heard the promises before, and we indeed identified enough mechanisms available to achieve EU strategic autonomy. The problems are internal and mostly linked to influential states' political will and the appetite to spend resources on security and defense. No matter the political, there is one direction of travel that has no negative aspects, mainly strengthening the European pillar of NATO: ”an increased European effort would actually strengthen the resolve of the North American Allies to maintain their essential contribution to the defense of the NATO area as a whole, and to that of Europe in particular”. A more European NATO is the healthiest next step to EU strategic autonomy, repairing the transatlantic relationship, and ultimately doing what is suitable for the people of all NATO member states. Refusing to have an involved, objective defense and security conversation within the EU, hesitating to accept a realistic world view and restraining from concrete actions can only have one outcome for the union: operating in a deficit that is entirely avoidable.
Olga R. Chiriac; Associated Researcher, Center for Strategic Studies. Research focused on NATO, transatlantic relations, maritime security. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone.
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