Strategic Autonomy and European Army: is it a good solution for the future of the European Union?

Photographer: Axel Schmidt/AFP

by Beatriz Ramos Cardoso

In a world of giants, you need to be a giant yourself. If we Europeans [do not] hang together, we will hang separately.”

Ash Garton, 2020

The paradigm – “A world of giants”

The European Union – and the core-values above which it has been built – is now facing new challenges that can easily undermine its structure. The unipolar moment is over, and, with the ascending of new second-tier powers, Europe must find its own way in a growing multipolar world – the challenges of yesterday are no longer the challenges of today.

A more assertive Russia, a confident growing China, and a more distant United States – particularly in the past few years with Donald Trump’s Administration – are now encouraging European leaders to gather in Brussels and rethink their models of ruling the Union. It is also important to note that the current Russia-Ukraine crisis could dramatically change (even more) the way Europeans think about their security. The fear of a real war is stalking Europe, and the urge to do something does not seem to stop increasing day after day. The new foreign policy challenges need to be addressed as soon as possible, or the EU may lose its remaining credibility and its place in this “world of giants”.

European Union – The beginning

Since its beginning, the European Union has relied on the United States (and on NATO) to ensure its security and defense, in part because the US agreed to take that lead after the Second World War, whereas the European project has remained purely economic (then political), leaving aside the military component. When it comes to collective defense, NATO remains the primary framework for most Member States. The European Union emerges as a community united upon a key set of valuespeace, freedom, democracy, supranational rule of law, human rights, etc. – in which the military component does not have much room. The power of these core values are themselves the power of the Union, which emerged as a normative power capable of influencing third parties through the European way of life. Therefore, one can say that Europe follows this Liberal way of approaching the International Relations, which constitutes, among other things, a powerful tool of soft power.

Unlike the United States, that follow a much more realist line of action in foreign affairs, based on the use of its hard power and coercive instruments, such as military strength and trade and economic robustness, the European Union relies on diplomacy and on the influence of its values, leaving most of the defense out of the table. However, in this “complex game that is international diplomacy” – as Kissinger states – this reality may have to change. Now more than ever, the idea of Strategic Autonomy and independence from the northern-American “protectorate” lies on the debate table.

European Army – what is it and what could it be?

Even though the dream of a European Army dates back to 1952, it never actually happened. The idea was designed by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Holland, and West Germany, and even though it was ratified in the first place, France latter refused it, leading to the purely economic (and then political) aforementioned form of integration.

However, as we have seen, Europe seems to be missing in these new international dynamics and perhaps America’s (and NATO’s) lifeline is not safe anymore. More than fifty years later, the debate regarding the European military arrangement seems to make more sense. It is indeed true that with the Biden Administration, “hostility” towards Brussels may find its end, but is it really safe to still leave an important part of international politics such as defense aside? By 2024, NATO member states have committed to spend 2% of their GDP on defense, but until 2019 only 6 countries did so: it is clear that defense has not been a priority for all member-states, but Europe cannot be content with being a “soft power” in a situation where force prevails over law.

Without the UK in the Union, an Army is more likely to gain form and to sprout. However, one of the problems that undermined the European Army in the first place was the different visions regarding what it can be. A single army could mean, for example, a mixture of several national military forces under a single command, subordinated to a central European political authority and responding to defense tasks previously defined and carried out by the Member States. Another possible model would be for states to allow national forces to integrate a joint European Structure, leaving some other national forces under national command. This is for example similar to what French Prime Minister, Réné Pleven, suggested in 1950. A third model could be recruitment, training, and preparation by the European Union itself, which would be directly creating armed forces – parallel to the existence of national forces and capable of functioning under supranational command. However, the big problem remains: the creation of a European Army would imply the transfer of more powers and competences to the EU in the field of defense, which seriously undermines the sovereignty of States: only a few States are willing to do so. In addition, there is still no common alignment on what, in fact, the political project is, nor if it should extend to the military, and security domain. Also, to build a European army under the current institutional arrangements of the EU would imply changes to the treaties, which would have to be approved by all governments and parliaments in the 27 countries. This is a really unlikely scenario…

Another case scenario – autonomy without a single army?

   One may be aware that even if the European Union decides to go ahead with the single army, the probabilities that it is going to be built in a conventional way are really low. For the EU, military force would only be part of a set of instruments for peace and conflict resolution, not for coercive or hard-power ends. This differs from the American Way of War, which is based on military might and force. Also, strategic autonomy should not be seen as a binary choice that Europe either has or does not have: autonomy should rather be seen as a spectrum reflecting favorable and unfavorable dependencies. But, by deciding to embark on the path of strategic autonomy, is Europe not detaching itself from those of the normative framework and liberal values that are at its genesis?

Maybe it is still an option to go for an intermediate way: it is clear that Europe needs to be prepared to defend itself better alone, without just depending on the United States and NATO, but perhaps it can be done by other means. Perhaps by incrementing its budget on defense; perhaps by finally finding a compromise on a single vision of what the Union is and should be; perhaps by trying to be pioneer in other strategic areas through the use of the strength of the single-market and the Euro. It is important, however, not to leave aside the core values that constitute the Union. Despite how big the new challenges may be, it is essential that the Union remains the Union.

Conclusion: what to do now?

The International System is in permanent configuration and the challenges of yesterday are no longer the challenges of today. The viability of the European Union and its markedly liberal normative and soft power model may no longer be enough to meet the demands of this changing world. The solution could be, effectively, the adoption of hard power tools and mechanisms, in a purely realistic and power-based logic, but only if this path does not imply the subjugation of the former. It is necessary that the Union remain faithful to its values ​​and basic principles and that it continue the cooperative diplomacy upon which it has been built, thus reaffirming the supremacy of dialogue and cooperation in International Relations, which often seems to be forgotten in favor of the realist vision realist based on interest defined in terms of power. A Europe that is strong internally is, above all, a Europe that is better prepared to take on and overcome the systemic challenges it faces.

Without any doubt, there is a clear need for Europe to take clear positions and quick actions on global affairs. (…) The future will be what we make it. And Europe will be what we want it to be.

State of the Union Address by President Ursula von der Leyen at the European Parliament  Plenary