The concept of ‘European strategic autonomy’ has taken a hit as Europeans have been sidelined and the European Union (EU) has struggled to make itself relevant in the current standoff with Russia over Ukraine.
With NATO’s new Strategic Concept and the EU’s first Strategic Compass, 2022 was meant to be the year of European security strategies. But the conflict at the Ukrainian border has been a reality check about what role the EU can today play in European security.
Conversely, the Ukraine crisis has amplified the UK’s role as a security provider for Europe through NATO as well as bilateral and minilateral arrangements such as the new Ukraine-Poland-UK trilateral format or, beyond the current crisis, London’s leadership of the ten-nation Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). The UK’s diplomatic energy and assertive action on the Ukraine situation – supplying military equipment, training, and increasing force deployments – have been widely acknowledged.
This crisis offered London a chance to reinstate its role after years of Brexit-related doubts and to confirm its priority remains Euro-Atlantic security – something some had doubted, particularly after the publication of the Integrated Review last year with references to an Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’.
Strategic autonomy is not just about Russia
The UK could now be tempted to think it can dismiss the – admittedly vague – concept of European strategic autonomy, as the Ukraine crisis has reaffirmed that when push comes to shove, European security still depends on NATO and the US.
Seemingly uninterested in a purely European approach, the British government has instead put emphasis on a united West through formats such as the G7, or a broader coalition of ‘open societies’ via the idea of a D10 – for example, the new UK foreign secretary Liz Truss has spoken of a ‘network of liberty’.
However, it would be premature for London to dismiss strategic autonomy because the key drivers of a greater European capacity for thinking and acting more autonomously on security and defence – above all the realization that the long-term commitment of the US to European security is changing as Washington increasingly focuses on the Indo-Pacific, a diagnosis London largely shares – have not altered.
The EU’s inability to make itself relevant in managing the current crisis with Russia, and the continued dependence on Washington for European strategic stability matters, are issues of mutual concern – and could actually add an even greater sense of urgency in creating a European capacity to act.
Moreover, strategic autonomy is about more than Russia, collective defence, and a more balanced transatlantic partnership. For the EU, ‘strategic sovereignty’ means taking steps in areas beyond security and defence, such as supply chains, critical infrastructures, energy, technology, and responding collectively to economic coercion – in part to tackle its over-reliance in many sectors on Russia and China.
What may emerge is a kind of ‘strategic autonomy lite’ where the EU becomes more purposeful on security while avoiding setting unrealistic short- and medium-term goals. This could lead to a greater EU capacity to act in second-order conflicts through more ambitious crisis-management or by using sanctions, and in other areas with security challenges such as international trade where it has real strength (for example its anti-coercion instrument designed to deter or retaliate against third countries coercing EU states economically), while at the same recognizing Europe’s continuing dependence on the US – and the UK – militarily to deter Russia.
A thoughtful and nuanced response is needed
The current crisis notwithstanding, the UK needs to think through the implications of a wider European strategic autonomy or sovereignty agenda, and seriously engage with the EU and key member states in this debate. The thinking behind the idea is complex and deserves a thoughtful and nuanced British response – not least because the US wants Europeans to do more, including through the EU.