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European Strategic Autonomy Through Practice

The conference on the future of Europe will take place. It has been mooted for more than two years, postponed several times, and was finally launched on 9 May on the occasion of Europe Day - a holiday celebrated each year in the EU states to commemorate the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950, which is itself considered to be the foundation of European integration. The inaugural plenary session of the conference was held on Saturday 19 June in Strasbourg. The exercise will last almost a year and will be concluded at the end of the French EU Presidency in June 2022.

Among the many subjects that European citizens are asked to debate, it is clear that the defensive aspect of Europe's strategic autonomy ambition is not the most popular. Whether it is a question of the EU's main assets, the challenges for its future, or what is perceived as being the most useful, a Eurobarometer carried out in the autumn of 2020 clearly indicated a prioritisation of legal-political (the rule of law), societal, ecological, economic, and internal security issues (namely the fight against terrorism within the borders). The deterioration of international relations, the ability of EU countries to influence global strategic affairs, and the ambition of autonomy in defence capabilities received the attention of less than 20% of respondents, when the question was asked.

There are several explanations for this relative lack of interest: the territory of the EU states remains an area of peace; concerns about foreign policy are rarely a priority in public opinion; the perception of an erosion of the European project is widespread; the health and economic crises relegate other issues to the background; the strategic debate is complex, requiring an introduction and specific knowledge. This debate left the European public arena at the end of the Cold War, only to reappear recently due to an upsurge in terrorist acts in Europe, the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, among other things. But this reappearance is still timid. This is a pity because the very question of a future for Europe depends in part on its ability to meet the challenge of its strategic autonomy. The opening of the conference on the future of Europe offers to popularise and democratise this challenge. What are the terms?

The European Union has officially claimed the objective of autonomy in terms of security and defence at least since the end of 2013 - the Council used this term in relation to the defence industry. This objective is enshrined in the EU's 2016 Comprehensive Strategy in simple terms: “An appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy is important if Europe is to promote peace and security within and beyond its borders.” Later that year, in 2016, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in an operational document entitled “Implementation Plan for Security and Defence”, defined this ambition as “the ability to act and cooperate with international and regional partners as much as possible and to operate autonomously when and where necessary”. This document details thirteen actions that go in the direction of increasing defence autonomy. Five years later, the debate is no longer about whether one is for or against the principle, but about what needs to be done to make further progress in this direction.

For those who still doubt the validity of the idea, the challenge can be formulated in the following terms: the progress that has been made since the 1998 Saint Malo Summit, the founding act of the process of developing a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in Europe, is both very real and allows the debate to be re-launched on the ground of commitments. Strategic autonomy in security and defence is a reality that is progressing: Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) since the end of 2017 provides an overall political framework, the European Defence Fund for 2019-2020, the European Peace Facility in the years to come, provide the means to implement the ambition.

Having said this, it must be recognised that the objectives set in Helsinki in 1999 have not been achieved by many states. The lack of capabilities is striking in a number of respects, particularly in the area of information sharing and so-called “situation awareness. The inequality in defence investment between European states to make up for the many capability shortfalls persists. The question of how much to increase these investments requires clarification of the common ambition. For all intents and purposes, if there is talk of a large-scale collective defence scenario in the future, estimates point to a shortfall of around $300 billion collectively, which could be filled in twenty years at best. Finally, the fragmentation of the European defence market on the supply side is still very real and obviously related to some brakes on collective autonomy. Today, 80% of defence investment in Europe is still spent at national level.

The Covid-19 pandemic in Europe since the winter of 2020 has usefully reopened the question of our continent's strategic autonomy by enriching it with its scientific, technological, industrial, commercial and financial aspects. This is a good thing. But the subject should not be drowned in an endless expansion of its meanings. The adoption of a “Strategic Compass” for European defence during the French Presidency of the EU Council in early 2022 will provide the best framework for assessing the implementation of European strategic autonomy. Shaping this future White Paper is of course part of the democratic debate on the future of Europe that started this spring.


Written by Benjamin Hautecouverture


Benjamin Hautecouverture is a historian and political scientist, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research (Paris, France). He is Technical Director for Expertise France, Senior Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and one of the founders of the European Union Consortium on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.