By Jacob Levitan
The issue of European strategic autonomy came up once again after the surprise announcement of the AUKUS Pact between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The Pact involved the (somewhat) surprise cancellation of Australia’s $66 billion deal for the supply of diesel-powered submarines with the French defense company Naval Group. Two weeks later, French President Macron cemented a mutual defense treaty with Greece which included the sale of six French Rafale warplanes and three frigates from France’s Naval Group. Mr. Macron commented that the treaty represented a strengthening of Europe’s “strategic autonomy and our European sovereignty,” while Greek President Kyriakos Mitsotakis called it the “bold first steps towards European strategic autonomy.”
However, President Macron has failed to provide a definition of European strategic autonomy and what it would entail. Most European leaders, including Mr. Macron, have stressed that this does not mean a break from NATO, but merely the European Union becoming a strong European pillar within the trans-Atlantic alliance. But to be genuinely autonomous, the EU would need to develop great power capabilities. Such capabilities would allow the EU to project military power independently on a global scale with a unified command structure, as well as a unified understanding of pertinent security threats. Currently, the EU has none of these capabilities or assets.
France has the largest EU military and is combating terrorists through Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, but still largely depends on the United States to maintain operations. “The French could not do what they’re doing in Mali without U.S. air transport or U.S. intelligence,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe. But European military autonomy will also largely depend on Germany. “The French can talk about strategic autonomy, but without the Germans being involved it will be fairly limited, unless…they [the French] get serious about defense spending.”
The EU must commit to greater defense spending. On the national level, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain slashed their defense budgets in response to the 2008 economic crisis and currently do not spend the two percent of national GDP on defense required by NATO. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of political will or public desire to increase military spending, especially in Germany, where the thought of German soldiers firing weapons in foreign countries causes discomfort, to say the least.
Nevertheless, Europe does spend considerably on its military. Current military spending within the EU reaches $200 billion, which, at 1.4% of collective European GDP, falls just under the $209.16 billion spent by China and outclasses Russia’s $66.8 billion. Yet a crisis of unreadiness plagues the European militaries, with ammunition shortages and tanks and helicopters which do not function even though they have been deemed combat-ready.
The issue, then, is not so much spending, although states like France, Germany, Italy, and Spain sorely need to boost their defense budgets. Rather, it is a matter of resource allocation. If the EU is to achieve sufficient military preparedness — or, rather, the ability to independently field and supply military forces — it will need to coordinate its member states’ defense spending and planning. This state of affairs is worsened by jealously guarded, majority state-owned national defense industries such as France’s Naval Group. Without an external force such as an EU military directorate, the national defense industries have no incentive to integrate into a general European defense market as other European markets have done. Such a sacrifice of national sovereignty to Brussels may be tough to swallow, especially as the EU battles with Poland over the legal foundations of the Union.
And without a unified European command organization, there can be no effective coordination. Small steps have been made towards a common European army, such as the creation of two German-led Dutch brigades, as well as a German-led Czech and German-led Romanian brigade. But these are merely dead-end, ad hoc arrangements, insufficient to create a genuine European army.
Europe will only coalesce once it recognizes a common security threat. For Western and Southern Europe, the most pertinent security threats are illegal migration and terrorism from the Sahel, and Erdogan’s Turkey. For the post-Soviet and post-Warsaw Pact states, the true threat is Russia. Paris and Berlin will first need to recognize Russia as Europe’s primary security threat, and commit to developing a potent security capability, for the eastern states to cease looking to Washington and NATO as their security guarantors. Otherwise, Russia will continue to launch cyberattacks against the Baltic states, interfere in European elections, and engage in coercive energy diplomacy with impunity.
Worse, the eastern states see France and Germany as selling them out to Moscow. “Nord Stream 2 is proof that Germany considers its energy and economic interests over the security of…the Baltics and Poland,” said Dr. Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “They [France and Germany] are telling Ukraine, ‘you ought to make a deal with Russia.’ That’s what it comes to.”
“The Kremlin is at war. Their…strategic objective is to present Ukraine as a totally failed state to the West,” said Hodges. This, in a nutshell, represents the fears of the eastern EU states: that France and Germany will sell the eastern states to a hostile Kremlin. Their fear is exacerbated by the suspicion that Macron’s call for European strategic autonomy is, instead, code for French strategic autonomy. EU leaders expressed this skepticism during the 2021 informal summit in Slovenia, where they rejected Macron’s proposal of a 5,000-strong common defense force.
As Washington shifts its focus from Europe to the Indo-Pacific, this may be the moment for Europe to begin coalescing its military potential. Macron should therefore aim for a genuine European autonomy rather than a French autonomy. In this regard, a truly bold first step towards autonomy would be the creation of a single, unified European command and the consolidation of the European national defense companies into a European defense market. The most important step, however, will be to convince Western European states that the security concerns Russia poses to Warsaw and Riga are just as much a threat to Paris and Lisbon. This process will likely take decades, but it can and must be done.