On ‘strategic autonomy’

A concept still to be defined

If in the field of European security and defence in recent years one expression stands out above all others, it is ‘strategic autonomy’. Especially since the publication of the EU’s Global Strategy in 2016. However, in the absence of a concrete definition, this is one of the EU’s unfinished business, especially in view of the drafting of the Strategic Compass.

European strategic autonomy – these are not just words. The strategic independence of Europe is our new common project for this century. It’s in all our common interest. 70 years after the founding fathers, European strategic autonomy is goal number one for our generation. For Europe, this is the real start of the 21st Century.

(European Council, 2020)

This is how European Council President Charles Michel ended his speech to the Brussels Economic Forum in September 2020. It was delivered in a high point in the negotiations on the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and the Recovery Plan in the face of covid-19. However, there is something wrong with the choice of terminology, as it is paradoxical that he states flatly that ‘European strategic autonomy is not just words’ when that is what we have, words.

This is so because, despite being so much in vogue since the publication of the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) in 2016, it is reduced to a crutch or a kind of mantra repeated all too assiduously. An expression that has been able to carve out a niche for itself in all those reference publications in the field of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

‘Strategic autonomy’: an undefined term

Although this term began to be used by the Council as early as November 2013 in relation to the defence industry and at the Foreign Affairs Council in May 2015, 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 appropriate level of ‘strategic autonomy’ ‘ and became the buzzword since June 2016.

However, although it was born without a concrete definition, its frequent use is no longer surprising. Proof of this has been the extrapolation of the term to all areas, especially in the aftermath of the covid-19 crisis. The greatest 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 Commission on Policy Objectives and Priorities for 2020-2024, 2020) when referring to ‘Europe’s open strategic autonomy’. An expression that has also been taken up by the European Commission in its new trade strategy.

From the EUGS it can be understood that the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’ extends to four fundamental areas: common interests of Europeans, promotion of its principles and values, peace and security within and outside the Union, and the European defence industry (Pontijas Calderón, 2019). In this regard, the Colonel notes:

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

It therefore lacks a concept of its own in the EUGS itself, but neither is it to be found in the EU glossary, nor in Council or European Council Decisions or Conclusions, for example. It might be thought that in its most general and abstract sense there is a definition as such, but, both within and outside the borders of the EU, it has not even been located in the EMAD Glossary of Joint Use Terminology (Estado Mayor de la Defensa, 2018), nor of course, being older, in military dictionaries such as José Almirante’s (Almirante, 1989) or the Defence Glossary (Sheehan & Wyllie, 1991), both published by the Ministry of Defence. Nor does it appear to be found in manuals on Strategic Studies or International Relations.

Moreover, the European Union itself, through its current High Representative (HR) and Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell, has openly admitted that it does not have a concept and that its adoption is necessary (Borrell, 2020). As the HR also points out, the closest we have to a definition is to be found in the Council conclusions of November 2016, when the expression is expressed in English: ‘capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible’ (Council conclusions on implementing the EU Global Strategy in the area of Security and Defence, 2016). This concept has been contemplated in successive years mainly by the Council, but also by the European Council, which has now been joined by the European Commission. It is also included in the framework of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) and is included in the legislative acts that support these instruments and initiatives.

This leads to the assertion that all stakeholders – not only policy makers but also academics – are writing and offering discourses on a term that we do not know for sure what it is. While approximations or vague definitions might be possible, the key lies in the role played by each of the 27 member states’ own national doctrine, defence culture, geography and history.

It is unwise to venture a definition as ‘strategic autonomy’ cannot be said to be an intuitive concept. Indeed, it can be said that it is by its very nature limited.

In this sense, very different definitions could be provided depending on which aspect is emphasised. If, for example, we were to seek a geographical definition, based on its scope of application, it would be illusory to consider that the EU, even if it had strategic autonomy – whatever that concept means – could act anywhere in the world and with the same capabilities.

This last concept is, incidentally, another of those belonging to the group that we could call ‘undefined’, even though the EU has an EU Capability Development Plan updated in 2018 (European Defence Agency, 2018). Another clear example of the absence of a common definition can be found around the concept of terrorism at the European level (Pérez, 2020).

Continuing with definitions, one could also speak of ‘strategic autonomy’ in terms of the ability to impose its will or interests on any rival. In this case, one could imagine a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being complete submission to the interests of third powers and 10 being an absolute ability to impose one’s own terms. Since there are no known cases of perfect hegemonies in History (Kennedy, 2013), the debate over the point at which we speak of «strategic autonomy» could be endless. Moreover, this would necessarily lead to another aspect that must always be considered: the need for an independent strategic deterrence capability, and therefore different from the extended deterrence provided by the US or the French Force de frappe (Pulido, 2018). After all, this remains the keystone of the international security architecture and without it, it is hard 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 all 27 members of the club will start from the same premises, given the undeniable divergences between them. It is a truism to say that a Polish or Estonian national will probably not think of defence in the same way as a Portuguese or a Spaniard. This is a truism that tends to dissipate among the numerous publications in this field of study.

On the one hand, the most recent example is to be found in the difficulties encountered in adopting the decision establishing 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 with the aim of harmonising the different positions on the perception of existing risks and threats.

Moreover, there is a clear tendency to associate the idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ or ‘non-dependence’ with the achievement of a European army when, in fact, these are distinct objectives. In other words, the realisation of a European army need not be a direct and necessary consequence of the achievement of greater autonomy at the European level. Not to say that this is not a common objective shared by the Member States. It is therefore necessary to know what the starting point and national ambitions are.

It is also necessary to make an aside by way of reminder.  The European Union is a sui generis international organisation, a rara avis among existing international organisations, but in essence it is an organisation born of the voluntary association of states that have decided to cede the exercise of sovereign competences. This notion, which is so firmly rooted in the very nature of the European Union, is also tending to evaporate.

The Member States have not ceded competences in this area, unlike in other areas, which is why the CSDP is such a distinct, unique and particular policy. In practice, the second pillar of the Greek temple alluded to in the Maastricht Treaty does not seem to have disappeared. A recent example can be found in the negotiations of the Agreement on the future relations between the UK and the EU when both blocs decided that security and defence would be left out of the equation. On 30 April, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was approved in the European Parliament, but there are still outstanding issues that have not been translated into any document beyond the Political Declaration reached between the two blocs in October 2019.

If anything can be drawn from the analysis of the CSDP, it is precisely its complexity in terms of bringing together positions and building in a real way precisely because of the divergences that exist between states. Not only at the level of interests and strategic objectives, but also taking into consideration their own conception of security and defence (Bartels, Kellner, & Optenhögel, 2017). Traditionally, the idea that the CSDP is the most intergovernmental redoubt of the CFSP has been established, and this will continue to be maintained over time as long as states do not contemplate ceding the exercise of their sovereign competences. If this were to happen, it would mean that at the individual level they would lose weight in the international arena.

That said, it goes without saying that the lack of a precise and concrete definition may be a direct consequence of the EU itself and its member states being unclear about the direction they should take and failing to reach consensus. In other words, we should ask the question that is repeated every year: Quo vadis Europa?

Moreover, this 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 defence industry.

In relation to this, it should be said that ‘strategic autonomy’ should also be analysed through the prism of the Coordinated Annual Defence Review (CARD) and PESCO, especially since the door was opened to the participation of third states in the latter on 5 November 2020 (Cózar Murillo, 2021). It should also be taken into consideration that on 6 May 2021 the Council adopted three Decisions on the participation of the United States, Canada and Norway in the Military Mobility project led by the Netherlands (European Union External Action Service, 2021).

Final remarks

It can be concluded from the foregoing that a definition of ‘strategic autonomy’ is an arduous but increasingly necessary task. Consequently, it seems at the very least appropriate that in the framework of the negotiations and adoption of the Strategic Compass, at least a de minimis definition should be coined. In other words, a definition that offers common elements that form the premise on which all Member States should base themselves.

The timing of this debate is also opportune, as the EU has just launched the Conference on the Future of Europe on Europe Day, which will close in 2022 under the French Presidency of the Council. In this respect, it was already stated when presenting the joint declaration signed by the Commission, Parliament and Council that there should be no taboo subjects. Consequently, also in the field of external action and particularly in security and defence.

In essence, although the European Union once again appears to be unclear about its objectives and concrete goals and, more importantly, the way forward, it is true that it has more political will than was the case before the impetus given by the EUGS. Therefore, even if the EU is delayed when it comes to providing definitions, it is better late than never.


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Beatriz Cózar Murillo
Últimas entradas de Beatriz Cózar Murillo (ver todo)


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