2022 SPECIAL: Strategic Autonomy At Stake


In June, Biden repeated the slogan “America is back” several times during his first trip to Europe as US President, trying to repair some of the damages the transatlantic partnership had suffered in the past four years….reports Asian Lite News

From the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan to the “backstabbing” AUKUS deal, the US’ unilateral moves have prompted the European Union (EU) to step up its debate and action on strategic autonomy in an eventful year.

As France, the concept’s staunch European advocate, takes over the half-year rotating presidency of the Council of the EU at the start of 2022, the bloc’s drive for strategic autonomy at least in security and defense is expected to get a fresh boost, though tangible results may not be immediately forthcoming, Xinhua news agency reported.

When the newly-elected US President Joe Biden said at February’s virtual Munich Security Conference that “America is back,” European politicians reacted by calling it a “historic opportunity” for the US and Europe to rebuild trust and reinforce unity after bilateral relations turned sour during former President Donald Trump’s administration.

In June, Biden repeated the slogan “America is back” several times during his first trip to Europe as US President, trying to repair some of the damages the transatlantic partnership had suffered in the past four years.

However, soon in July, the US President announced that the country’s military mission in Afghanistan would conclude on August 31, ahead of the original September 11 deadline. The hasty move left its European allies dazed as they scrambled to leave the war-torn country using their own meagre resources.

Then in September, with the announcement of the AUKUS deal, the US dealt yet another blow to the Europeans still frustrated with the exit from Afghanistan. France, which lost a multibillion-dollar contract due to the nuclear submarine pact, said it felt “betrayed” and “stabbed in the back.”

During the time, some European politicians repeatedly called for the EU to reassess the transatlantic partnership and reposition itself with increased autonomy. In October, EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said that “major geopolitical shifts are taking place,” which put into question Europe’s ability to defend itself.

To move forward, he added that the EU “must focus on action” and presented in November the draft Strategic Compass, which sets out “concrete steps” towards building a common strategic vision for EU security and defense over the next five to 10 years.

Described as a “guide for action,” the document includes operational guidelines to help the bloc become more secure when it comes to responding to external crises, capacity building and protecting its citizens.

The blueprint foresees the creation of a so-called “European army”. It proposes the development by 2025 of an EU Rapid Deployment capacity of up to 5,000 troops made up of land, air and maritime components.

The aim is to improve the bloc’s readiness for future crises such as rescue and evacuation missions as well as maritime or air operations.

It is not the first time that the Europeans have come up with a new defense cooperation initiative nor is it the first proposal for the creation of a rapid reaction force.

Since 2007, the EU has maintained multinational battlegroups composed of 1,500 troops but their deployment has been hampered by a lack of political will and money.

This time, the military force proposed in the blueprint has again become a sticking point for the EU countries and the reactions were mixed.

While the bloc’s major military powers such as France and Italy reportedly welcomed the proposal, Poland and Lithuania have voiced reservations arguing that the EU’s existing battlegroups have never been used and any new EU military idea should not be at the expense of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said his organisation supports the EU’s plan but cautioned that this “can’t replace” and “should not duplicate” NATO. He added that the EU and NATO should avoid creating “parallel structures” that would compete for the same limited resources.

The history of European integration, according to Borrell, has seen many initiatives to strengthen security and defense ties but “most have come and gone”.

France, however, has vowed to make developing an EU security strategy a priority when it assumes the bloc’s presidency in January.

Outlining his country’s presidency agenda in December, French President Emmanuel Macron, who has described the NATO as “brain dead,” said that France plans to move towards “a Europe that is powerful in the world, fully sovereign, free in its choices and in charge of its own destiny.”

For years, the concept of strategic autonomy born in the defense industry has been part of the EU’s agreed language. However, not all the bloc’s 27 member states have the same strategic perceptions due to differences in history, geography and national conditions.

Any meaningful effort on defense capabilities will require further expenditure. Of the 27 EU countries, 21 are NATO members. Up till now, most of these EU states have failed to meet the US-dominated alliance’s target of 2 per cent of GDP spending on defense.

Moreover, unlike other areas where the EU can make decisions with a qualified majority, foreign and security policy remains the “exclusive competence” of member states. Decisions in the area must be made unanimously and each country has a veto power which often results in blockages.

Nevertheless, the Strategic Compass, one of the EU’s most ambitious security and defense initiatives, is set to be adopted in March and a summit on European defense is also on next year’s agenda. The EU has declared 2022 “the year of European defense”.

Borrell has stressed that the draft plan aims to nurture a common strategic culture. He called on member states to avoid treating it “as yet another EU paper with limited buy in and follow up” and work together towards its adoption.

In today’s multi-polar world, how far will the EU go on its path to strategic autonomy? Will the Strategic Compass start a new chapter in European security and defense? These remain to be seen.

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