On “Strategic Autonomy”

A concept pending definition

On Strategic Autonomy. Source - European Defence Agency.
On Strategic Autonomy. Source - European Defence Agency.

If in the field of European security and defense in recent years one expression stands out above all, it is that of “Strategic Autonomy”, especially since the publication of the EU Global Strategy in 2016. However, lacking of a specific definition, this is presented as one of the pending accounts of the EU, especially in view of the preparation of the Strategic Compass.

‘European strategic autonomy’ are not mere words. The strategic independence of Europe is our new common project for this century. In everyone’s interest. Seventy years after the founding fathers, European strategic autonomy is the number one goal of our generation. For Europe, this is the true beginning of the XNUMXst century

(European Council, 2020)

In this forceful way, the speech of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, ended in front of the Brussels Economic Forum in September 2020; a critical moment in the negotiations of the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and the Recovery Plan against covid-19. However, something is wrong with the choice of terminology, since it is paradoxical that it categorically affirms that «European strategic autonomy is not mere words» when in reality that is all we have, words.

This is so, since despite being so in vogue since the publication of the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) in 2016, these are reduced to a filler or a kind of mantra repeated too often. Expression that has been able to carve out a niche for itself in all reference publications in the field of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).

“Strategic Autonomy”: an expression without definition

Despite the fact that this expression began to be used by the Council as early as November 2013, in relation to the defense industry and in the Foreign Affairs Council of May 2015, the truth is that little is known about the definition and scope of this terminology. In the conception of the EUGS, the idea resurfaces through the reference “to an adequate level of strategic autonomy” and became the fashionable expression since June 2016.

However, although it is born without a specific definition, no one is surprised by its frequent use. Proof of this has been the extrapolation of the term to all areas, especially as a consequence of the covid-19 crisis. The best example of this can be found in the Conclusions adopted by the European Institutions on the objectives and priorities for the period 2020-2024 (Joint Conclusions of the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Union on the objectives and priorities for the period 2020-2024, 2020) when mentioning “the open strategic autonomy of Europe”. Expression that has also come to be contemplated by the European Commission in its new commercial strategy.

From the EUGS it can be understood that the “strategic autonomy” of the EU extends to four fundamental areas: common interests of Europeans, promotion of its principles and values, peace and security inside and outside the Union, and the European defense industry (Pontijas Calderón, 2019). In this sense, the Colonel points out:

“These four fields coincide with the three dimensions that any strategic autonomy should encompass: operational (civil and military), economic (industrial), and political (diplomatic).”

Therefore, it lacks its own concept in the EUGS itself, but it is not found in the EU glossary, nor in Decisions or Conclusions of the Council or the European Council, for example. It could be thought that in its most general and abstract sense there is a definition as such, but both inside and outside the borders of the EU it has not been possible to locate it. Not even in the Glossary of Terminology for Joint Use of the EMAD (Defense Staff, 2018), nor of course, being older, in military dictionaries such as that of José Almirante (Almirante, 1989) or the Defense Glossary ( Sheehan & Wyllie, 1991), both edited by the Ministry of Defence. Nor does it seem to be in Strategic Studies or International Relations manuals.

Moreover, the European Union itself, through its current High Representative (HR) and Vice President of the Commission, Josep Borrell, has openly admitted that it does not have a concept and that its adoption is necessary (Borrell, 2020). As the RA also points out, the closest thing we have to a definition is found in the Council conclusions of November 2016 when translating the expression into English: “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible» (ability to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners whenever possible) (Council conclusions on implementing the EU Global Strategy in the area of ​​Security and Defence, 2016). A concept that has been contemplated in successive years by the Council, mainly, but also by the European Council, to which the European Commission now also joins. Likewise, within the framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund (EDF), it also finds a place in the legislative acts that support these instruments and initiatives.

This leads to the assertion that all interest groups (stakeholders) – not only policymaker, but also academics – they are writing and giving speeches about an expression that we don’t know for sure what it is. Although it is true that approximations or vague definitions could be made, the key lies in the role played by the national doctrine, defense culture, geography and history of each of the 27 Member States.

It is not considered prudent to venture to offer a definition insofar as it cannot be affirmed that «strategic autonomy» stands as an intuitive concept. Moreover, it can be said that by its very nature it is born limited.

In this sense, very different definitions could be provided depending on the aspect on which the accent is placed. For example, if we wanted a geographical definition, based on its scope of application, it would be illusory to consider that the EU, even having “strategic autonomy” – whatever this concept is understood – could act anywhere in the world and with the same capabilities. One only has to look at the limitations that the partners have suffered in nearby scenarios such as Libya or make an analysis of both air and naval strategic transport capabilities in comparison with that of other great powers to become aware of the limitations with which the EU starts in order to obtain its long-awaited «strategic autonomy».

Since we are talking about «capabilities», this last concept is, by the way, another of those belonging to the group that we could call «undefined», although the EU has an updated EU Capability Development Plan in 2018 (European Defense Agency, 2018). Another clear example of the absence of a common definition can be found around the concept of terrorism in the European sphere (Pérez, 2020).

Returning to the definition of «strategic autonomy», it could also be spoken of in terms of the ability to impose its will or interests on any rival. In this case, a scale from 0 to 10 could be imagined, with 0 being complete submission to the interests of third powers and 10 being an absolute capacity to impose one’s own terms. Since throughout history there are no known cases of perfect hegemonies and all the great powers have seen their capacity for action limited by their rivals and by the alliances established between them (Kennedy, 2013), the debate destined to set from what point we speak of “strategic autonomy” could be endless. In addition, this would necessarily lead to another aspect that must always be considered: the need to equip itself with an independent strategic deterrence capacity and, therefore, different from the extended deterrence that the US provides or that could be provided by the Strike force French (Polished, 2018). After all, this continues to be the keystone of the international security architecture and without it, it is difficult to believe that the EU could act on equal terms with powers such as the US, Russia or China.

Without a definition, it is unlikely that the 27 members of the club start from the same premises, given the undeniable differences between them. It is plausible to say that a Polish or Estonian national will probably not conceive the defense in the same way as a Portuguese or Spanish. This, which is really obvious, tends to dissipate among the numerous publications that are available in this field of study.

On the one hand, the most recent example is found in the difficulties encountered in adopting the Decision that establishes the conditions for the participation of third States in individual PESCO projects. On the other hand, the example of the future is identified with the adoption of the Strategic Compass or strategic compass with the purpose of harmonizing the different positions on the perception of existing risks and threats.

In addition, there is a clear tendency to associate the idea of ​​”strategic autonomy” or “non-dependence” to the achievement of a European army when, in reality, are configured as different objectives. In other words, the creation of a European army does not have to be a direct and necessary consequence of achieving greater autonomy at European level. All this, not to say that this is not a common goal shared by the Member States. Therefore, it is necessary to know what the starting point and the national claims are.

Likewise, it is necessary to make a subsection as a reminder. The European Union is an international organization sui generis, a rara avis among existing International Organizations, but, in essence, it is an organization that is born from the voluntary association of States that have decided to cede the exercise of sovereign powers. This well-established notion about the very nature of the European Union also tends to evaporate.

The Member States have not ceded powers in this area, unlike what happens in others, and for this reason, the CSDP is a policy that is so different from the rest, unique and particular. In practice, it does not seem that the second pillar of the Greek temple alluded to in the Maastricht Treaty has disappeared. A recent example can be found in the negotiations of the Agreement on Future Relations between the UK and the EU when both blocs decided that security and defense would be left out. So much so that on April 30 the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom was approved in the European Parliament, but issues are still pending that have not been reflected in any document beyond the Declaration Policy achieved between both blocs in October 2019.

If something can be extracted from the analysis of the CSDP, it is precisely its complexity when it comes to uniting positions and building in a real way precisely because of the existing divergences between the States. Not only at the level of interests and strategic objectives, but also taking into account their own conception of security and defense (Bartels, Kellner, & Optenhögel, 2017). Traditionally, the idea has been established that the CSDP is the most intergovernmental redoubt of the CFSP and this will continue to be maintained over time as long as the States do not contemplate giving up the exercise of their sovereign powers. If it happens, it would imply that at the individual level they would lose weight in the international arena.

Having said that, it goes without saying that the lack of a precise and concrete definition may be a direct consequence of the fact that the EU itself and its Member States are not clear about which direction to take and are unable to reach a consensus. In other words, we should ask the question that is repeated every year: What’s up Europe?

As if that were not enough, it is an extremely broad idea that is directly related to other terms such as “industrial sovereignty” and/or “technological sovereignty”, since its emergence was precisely in the field of the defense industry.

In this regard, it should be said that “strategic autonomy” must also be analyzed from the perspective of the Coordinated Annual Review of Defense (CARD) and PESCO, especially since the door to participation was opened on November 5, 2020. of third States in the latter (Murillo, 2021). Likewise, it should be taken into consideration that on May 6, 2021, the Council adopted three Decisions on the participation of the United States, Canada and Norway in the project on Military Mobility (Military Mobility) led by the Netherlands (European External Action Service , 2021).

Final thoughts

From all of the above, it can be concluded that the preparation of a definition of «strategic autonomy» is presented as an arduous task, but increasingly necessary. Consequently, it is considered at least opportune that in the framework of the negotiations and adoption of the Strategic Compass, at least one definition de minimis. In other words, a definition that offers common elements that make up the premise on which all the Member States must base themselves.

Likewise, the moment for opening this debate is also opportune since the EU has just launched the Conference on the Future of Europe on the occasion of Europe Day and whose closure will take place in 2022 under the French presidency of the Council. In this sense, it was already stated at the time of presenting the joint declaration signed by the Commission, Parliament and Council that there should be no taboo subjects. Consequently, neither in the field of foreign action and particularly with regard to security and defense.

In essence, although the European Union seems to be unclear once again what its specific objectives and goals are, and more importantly, the path to follow, it is true that it does have greater political will within it than it had before the impetus given by the EUGS. Therefore, although when it comes to offering definitions it arrives late, Better late than never.


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