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European strategic autonomy? Let’s start with national autonomy

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Europe’s debate over “strategic autonomy” from America recently has heated up, even though the man who described the European Union (EU) as a foe soon will vacate the White House. Ironically, just as America is about to inaugurate the most transatlanticist president-elect in a generation, some Europeans such as French President Emmanuel Macron are doubling down on promoting greater European independence from the United States. 

Questions about whether and how Europe should pursue strategic autonomy are facile, though. The reality is that until European states achieve true political union, EU strategic autonomy is a pipe dream. In the meantime, Europe’s leading states ought to focus on national autonomy if they wish to play a larger role in the world and share more responsibility with Washington — but even this objective is likely to remain elusive.

Frederick the Great is supposed to have said that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. For some time, EU diplomacy — the so-called Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) — has lacked instruments. Beyond peace-keeping, military training missions and other relatively permissive security environments, CSDP has remained hamstrung by the unwillingness of European countries to cede authority over life-and-death military decisions. This is likely to remain the case until there’s true political unification, giving Brussels — versus Berlin, Paris or Rome — the power to deploy military forces in the name of Europe.

Unfortunately for the champions of strategic autonomy, political authority over vital national security decisions is unlikely to shift from where it currently resides at the state level to the supranational level anytime soon. Presently, just accelerating defense industrial integration or security cooperation among European countries is proving difficult and slow. Until European countries hand decisive political sovereignty to the EU, debates over strategic autonomy are not much more than hot air. 

In the meantime, if leading European countries want a greater say in the world, they ought to focus instead on achieving national autonomy as a preliminary step — that is, the ability to act independently across time and distance in security and defense matters. In the not-so-distant past, several leading European countries were capable of doing just that. The troubling thing is, much of the capability, capacity and willpower — particularly in the cases of the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy — have disappeared in recent years and face little chance of returning anytime soon.

In the case of the UK, its economy will be worse off because of Brexit. In the worst-case scenario, Scotland could leave the kingdom, potentially prompting Northern Ireland to secede as well. Even without Brexit, years of austerity cuts already have reduced UK military capabilities and capacity significantly. The recent announcement of new funding for defense and unfolding acquisition programs, such as aircraft carriers, may stem decline or even provide the appearance of a rejuvenated British military. But ongoing personnel shortfalls, the unknown depth and scope of the current pandemic recession, and other challenges likely will reduce the practical impact of recent announcements and acquisitions. Slowly, the UK’s security horizon will recede once again, as it did 50 years ago when London ended its large and expensive military role “East of Suez.”

Paris’s ability to play a greater international role and to fulfill its own security objectives remains under pressure, thanks to ongoing, demanding operational commitments in Africa, as well as across the French homeland. At the same time, the political revolution represented by Macron’s dramatic victory in 2017 has yet to bring about a promised economic revolution. Many of the solutions to some of France’s most pressing economic challenges remain unimplemented, hamstrung by political disagreements or overcome by the challenge of dealing with the magnitude of the COVID-19 economic downtown.

In contrast to France and the UK, Germany has even less hard power capability and will to use it. There may be a silver lining in this case, though, given that younger Germans tend to favor greater international involvement, unlike most of their grandparents. Moreover, while Berlin continues to navigate the peaks and troughs of the business cycle, especially the dislocation created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany supersedes all its neighbors in terms of its long-term economic growth prospects. Whether it translates that growth into hard power remains the key question.

Finally, Italian capability, capacity and willpower have all shrunk significantly, mostly because of Italy’s debt crisis and its inability to muster the political will to fix the country’s flawed economic fundamentals. The migration crisis of the mid-2010s exacerbated the dire economic situation confronting the country, bringing about a crisis of Italian identity. These twin challenges resulted in populists taking over the Italian government in the late 2010s, which only furthered the downward trends in terms of capabilities, capacity and willpower.

Together, this is a daunting array of challenges confronting Europe’s leading states. Nonetheless, the fastest route to a more influential Europe in global affairs runs through London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, not necessarily Brussels.

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Coalition of the unWilling and unAble: European Realignment and the Future of American Geopolitics.” The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Tags Autonomy Brexit Emmanuel Macron European Union France Germany Italy United Kingdom

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