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Industry, shortages, diplomacy: the ripples of war in Ukraine

Strategic autonomy: Europe’s awakening

Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On May 25th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Riccardo Perissisch 1
Riccardo Perissisch
Research Director at the LUISS School of Political Economics (Rome)
Key takeaways
  • In 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s proposal of "strategic autonomy" was initially met with reluctance in Europe, particularly because some countries were disinterested in defence issues.
  • The Russian-Ukrainian crisis has changed the game, revealing the nature of the Russian threat, highlighting the previous misunderstanding between "autonomy" and "NATO membership."
  • In response, the EU has reacted with speed and determination, the most spectacular development being that of Germany.
  • A European defence programme could now be possible but will not be easy to create because of the weight of the existing contracts and programs.
  • Cyber defence, a new subject, is the easiest to implement at federal level.

Until the last few weeks, the “strategic autonomy”  advocated for in Paris had little success with other European countries. Why?

The ideas pre­sent­ed by Pres­i­dent Macron in Sep­tem­ber 2017 in his Sor­bonne speech regard­ing Euro­pean strate­gic auton­o­my, were the prod­uct of cur­rent events. The pres­i­den­cy of Don­ald Trump had brought about a change in the strate­gic vision of the Unit­ed States, which had begun with Oba­ma. We were enter­ing a world where, due to the growth of Chi­na and a hard­en­ing of inter­na­tion­al rela­tions, the com­pla­cen­cy of Euro­peans regard­ing inter­na­tion­al prob­lems could not last.

Because of this sit­u­a­tion, Pres­i­dent Macron Europe said Europe had to wake up. But when a pro­pos­al is made by Paris, it is often greet­ed with a cer­tain amount of mis­trust. There are sev­er­al rea­sons for this. On the one hand, there is a cer­tain pom­pos­i­ty that is char­ac­ter­is­tic of French debate, and which is poor­ly under­stood out­side France. Sec­ond­ly, there is a dis­trust that exists every­where in Europe (and even more so in the Unit­ed States): every time a sug­ges­tion on inter­na­tion­al pol­i­cy comes from Paris, it is inter­pret­ed in a neo-Gaullist sense. The French must be aware of this. The word “auton­o­my” used by Macron has been wide­ly inter­pret­ed in this way out­side France, which has made the dis­cus­sion more difficult.

But this mis­trust of the French pro­pos­al hid anoth­er prob­lem: some Euro­peans, notably Ger­many and Italy, were liv­ing in com­pla­cen­cy and denial. They con­sid­ered that the inter­na­tion­al sys­tem was safe, that if there were any dan­gers, we could count on the Amer­i­cans, and that our inter­est was above all to look after our eco­nom­ic and com­mer­cial inter­ests, includ­ing with Rus­sia and China.

Under these con­di­tions, it is not sur­pris­ing that coun­tries that had a much more pre­cise per­cep­tion of threats to their secu­ri­ty, such as Poland, the Baltic coun­tries, or the Scan­di­na­vians, could find the Euro­pean Union of lit­tle use from a strate­gic point of view, which fur­ther strength­ened their attach­ment to NATO. With the Biden admin­is­tra­tion, reas­sur­ing mes­sages began to mul­ti­ply, which cer­tain­ly helped to light­en the atmos­phere. But the mis­un­der­stand­ings did not dis­ap­pear. All these mis­un­der­stand­ings have been swept away by the cur­rent crisis.

How has this crisis changed the game?

It has shown two things. The first is that Putin’s real inter­est is not NATO, which is just a pre­text for the whole oper­a­tion. His real inter­est is, on the one hand, to re-estab­lish a sphere of influ­ence beyond Rus­si­a’s bor­ders and to re-estab­lish what can still be saved from the Sovi­et empire. And, on the oth­er hand, to avoid the demo­c­ra­t­ic con­t­a­m­i­na­tion com­ing from his neigh­bours, at all costs. But the fact that between Ukraine and Rus­sia there are, as he insists on remind­ing us, deep his­tor­i­cal, eth­nic, and cul­tur­al links makes this dan­ger of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion even greater. If democ­ra­cy were to suc­ceed in Ukraine, inevitably the Rus­sians would see it. So, for Putin, it is a ques­tion of sur­vival. Every­thing could have been dif­fer­ent if, after the fall of the Sovi­et Union, Rus­sia had tak­en a dif­fer­ent path. But it is not because of us that it could not do so. It was its inter­nal dialec­tics that led it to replace com­mu­nism with an autoc­ra­cy, pass­ing from Joseph Stal­in to Joseph de Maistre.

The cur­rent cri­sis has also revealed that Atlantic uni­ty and Euro­pean uni­ty were not con­tra­dic­to­ry, but on the con­trary were close­ly linked. There is no Euro­pean uni­ty pos­si­ble with­out Atlantic uni­ty. And sym­met­ri­cal­ly, Atlantic uni­ty is inef­fec­tive if Euro­peans are not unit­ed. This is an impor­tant les­son of this crisis.

It was not obvi­ous, because mis­trust did not dis­ap­pear. Among the Euro­peans: did the Amer­i­cans want to talk to the Rus­sians over their heads? The Amer­i­cans, for their part, did not believe that the Euro­peans would be up to the task. Indeed, it was not easy to get the Ger­mans and Ital­ians to move. Final­ly, many peo­ple won­dered why Macron was going to Moscow. All this, in a sys­tem that involves a num­ber of democ­ra­cies, was prob­a­bly inevitable. But the result is extra­or­di­nary. Nobody expect­ed such a strong con­sen­sus in such a short time. All those who expect­ed pure­ly sym­bol­ic sanc­tions should rethink their opinion.

And I would add that there is a game chang­er in what has hap­pened in the last few days, when Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Olaf Scholz announced a spec­tac­u­lar increase in his defence bud­get. If Ger­many spent 2 % of its GDP on defence, its defence bud­get would far exceed that of Rus­sia. Berlin’s change of course is fun­da­men­tal: it can be com­pared to Hel­mut Kohl’s deci­sion to give up the deutsche mark and join the euro.


Will a defensive Europe finally come into being?

It is now pos­si­ble, and France has a par­tic­u­lar respon­si­bil­i­ty here. When it comes to for­eign pol­i­cy and defence, because of its inter­na­tion­al posi­tion, its seat at the Unit­ed Nations, its nuclear deter­rent, France objec­tive­ly occu­pies the same place as Ger­many in eco­nom­ic and mon­e­tary mat­ters. There is a sort of lead­er­ship oblig­a­tion on the French side. France must be able to remove the ambi­gu­i­ty con­cern­ing rela­tions with NATO, which will not pre­vent us, depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, from assert­ing our inter­ests with regards tothe Amer­i­cans. How­ev­er, this ambi­gu­i­ty must be removed, oth­er­wise the European’s will strug­gle to reach a consensus.

Also, Euro­pean defence will be dif­fi­cult to cre­ate because it impos­es indus­tri­al opti­mi­sa­tions that are always dif­fi­cult to nego­ti­ate. There­fore, I think that pri­or­i­ty should be giv­en to cyber defence. Rus­sia has been giv­ing us an excel­lent les­son in hybrid war­fare for sev­er­al years, with a con­ti­nu­ity between false infor­ma­tion, cyber-attacks and high inten­si­ty war­fare. Cyber defence is a sec­tor where Europe is lag­ging, even though it is a real com­mon inter­est. More­over, we know that dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies are « dual », with civil­ian and mil­i­tary uses: there is there­fore an objec­tive, strate­gic but also eco­nom­ic interest.

Final­ly, it will undoubt­ed­ly be dif­fi­cult to achieve una­nim­i­ty quick­ly, but a hard core will be need­ed. In addi­tion to France and Ger­many, it should include at least Poland, Italy, and Spain, but also Swe­den and the Nether­lands. Poland becomes a key coun­try here, which can help us to resolve the oth­er dis­putes we have with it. This oppor­tu­ni­ty has nev­er been pre­sent­ed before, and the win­dow may close again because the inter­na­tion­al sit­u­a­tion may wors­en, the Unit­ed States will enter a sit­u­a­tion of inter­nal dif­fi­cul­ties, polar­i­sa­tion and all our coun­tries are fac­ing eco­nom­ic and social prob­lems. So, we must exploit it.

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