European sovereignty without strategic autonomy

The European Union seeks more independence from US influence, but its members disagree on the best way forward for its own security.

Expert comment Published 19 January 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 2 minute READ

Hans Kundnani

Former Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

During the Donald Trump presidency, Europeans were forced to do some soul searching resulting in the conclusion that, as German chancellor Angela Merkel famously put it, Europe must ‘take its destiny into its own hands’. In other words, become more independent of the United States.

But how exactly could Europe achieve this and in which aspects of their destiny? The debate has centred on two concepts: ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘European sovereignty’. Both are vague and, while they have been used interchangeably, they are distinct and emerged in response to two different aspects of the Trump administration’s policies.

The concept of strategic autonomy emerged in response to uncertainty created by the election of Trump about the long-held US security guarantee to Europe, focusing largely on defence policy and the future of NATO. It expresses the idea that Europe – usually but not always the European Union (EU) – should be less dependent on the United States for its security.

The idea of European sovereignty then emerged because of the tariffs on aluminium and steel imports imposed by the Trump administration on the EU and China, and the indirect impact on Europeans of new sanctions imposed on Iran in 2018 – which former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt criticized as a ‘massive attack’ on European sovereignty. Although a problematic term, it expresses the idea that Europe – in this case the EU – should also be more independent of the US on economic policy.

However, what has now become clear is the EU is pursuing European sovereignty without strategic autonomy. The latter is much more divisive within the EU than the former – while strategic autonomy has many supporters in France, it is opposed by Poland and by many in Germany. As a result, attempts to develop EU defence initiatives are making little progress.

The EU is also a much weaker player on security policy than on economic policy, which makes strategic autonomy a much less realistic goal. Meanwhile the election of Joe Biden as a US president who is committed to NATO has removed the uncertainty about US commitment to European security, and reduced the pressure on Europe to achieve strategic autonomy for at least the next four years.

But while continuing its dependence on the US for security, the EU wants to oppose it in areas such as trade, investment, energy, and technology – so will the United States allow it to do so? Some in the Biden administration, particularly Europeanists, see the transatlantic relationship as an end it itself and want above all to restore it.

But others, particularly those focused on achieving American objectives elsewhere in the world, see the relationship in more instrumental terms – purely as a mechanism for achieving those objectives, and so would be willing to put more pressure on the EU to align with them.

China is the most important issue. With the election of Biden, there are high hopes for a new transatlantic approach to China. But the EU, led by Merkel, pressed ahead with its Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China even after incoming US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan pleaded on Twitter for ‘early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices’.

That EU rush to agree the CAI angered some members of the Biden team, but the reaction of many in the EU was they do not have to ask permission from the US to sign an investment deal with China – in other words, a clear assertion of economic sovereignty.

Russia is also important. The instinct of many in the Biden administration is to work closely with Germany and, above all, Merkel who was seen as the key European player in the coordinated response to the Ukraine crisis during the Obama administration years.

But Germany is now pushing ahead with the NordStream 2 gas pipeline which the more hawkish members of the Biden administration strongly oppose. The Trump administration has just announced new sanctions so will the Biden administration push Germany hard by supporting or extending these sanctions? Or will it essentially give Germany a free pass to maintain – and be seen to maintain – good relations?

Whether the Biden administration allows the EU to have it both ways, by continuing to depend on the United States for its security while opposing it on China and Russia, depends on which faction shapes policy most decisively.

Pulling in one direction will be the Europeanists, perhaps including new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Pulling the other way will be strategists such as Kurt Campbell, the new senior coordinator for Indo-Pacific policy at the National Security Council.

But the decisive figure may be Jake Sullivan. Although he has written with Campbell about strategic competition with China, officials from the EU – and in particular Germany – will be hoping he sides with the Europeanists.