State of the Union 2021: Column by Arnout Brouwers
29 Sep 2021 - 16:53

Security narratives for a geopolitical Europe

Scene setting column by Arnout Brouwers, Diplomatic correspondent at De Volkskrant

The topic at hand today - European defence - is a very delicate thing - both precious and mysterious. We talk about it endlessly, but have rarely spotted it in action.  

A couple of years ago - also at Clingendael - I remember an expert saying: more has been achieved in European defence cooperation in the past 20 months than in the 20 years before that. That was the cliche of the day, back then. 

That excitement had to do with an abbreviation - PESCO - which YOU all know but which for  journalists is quite impossible to explain to their readers. And here we are, after the unilaterally decided withdrawal from Afghanistan and after the AUKUS deal - which makes sense but ignores the existence of the EU and betrays one of its largest members.

So today, nobody is cheering. 

And here we are, discussing the latest “wake up call” in a long series of wake up calls that started with the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. I mean: tanks roll out of Russian factories faster than boxes of chocolate from ours. And while we are in self-therapy, China has been building a formidable navy and is openly using terrorist tactics such as hostage taking to get what it wants.

So yes, good question this panel needs to solve: what should be the EU’s strategic narrative? 

Most we can hope for is that the EU survives its internal contradictions, and returns to the embodiment of democracy and rule of law that many people in the world admire it for

Basically the question is: can we take our destiny in our own hands? A sceptic might say: obviously not! We prefer the chocolate, and there won’t be major investments in our defense until a US president, in front of our eyes, tears up the Washington Treaty.  (we already came close to it btw)

But, as a utopian realist I’d say the most we can hope for is that the EU survives its internal contradictions, and returns to the embodiment of democracy and rule of law that many people in the world admire it for. Obviously replacing or copying US military might is not going to happen. So that’s my first point: aside from lofty goals we need humility and realism.   

The second point: our military weakness doesn't necessarily mean we are weak on the global scene. Weakness is not only a function of military means but also of economic ones, capacity for technological innovation, the power to set rules and, last but not least, political cohesion. So if we want a stronger EU on the global stage, honestly speaking, it requires much more than investments in defence.  

In our quest for a strategic narrative we must not stray from the EU’s self-perception as a different power, one where values actually matter, the birthplace of power politics - but also its bloody graveyard. I like the term strategic autonomy when it signals to autocrats surrounding us that we won’t allow them to take us hostage - either with gas deliveries or threats to unleash refugees.  

But then: look at Nordstream II - German unilateralism and naiveté wrapped up in a strategic disaster for Europe. So no - we won’t see EU members letting a French president or German chancellor negotiate their hard core security interests with Vladimir Putin. Not going to happen. As Gideon Rachman quotes a Czech politician in his column: “One thing we learnt from 1938 — no more security guarantees from France.”

The AUKUS deal underlines that hard core national security interests trump everything else - including offending friends. For Australia the threat perception of China changed dramatically in the past years - that’s what made them change their mind. Don’t expect Poland or Lithuania to behave differently when push comes to shove. 

Do we have alternatives to strategic autonomy? 

And there’s an even bigger “but” to the concept of strategic autonomy: The grueling fact that we ARE dependent on Americans for their military might and their nuclear umbrella, and their military “enablers” - and will remain so for quite some time. And if you don’t believe me, take it from president Macron who yesterday sold a defence deal with Greece as “not an alternative to the alliance with the US, but it’s about taking responsibility of this European pillar within Nato, and drawing the conclusion that we are asked to do more for our own defence.” 

Well spoken, Monsieur le President. 

On twitter this week you could see a video clip of two men who encountered a tiger in the woods and had to flee in the tree. As they sit there, waiting it out, you hear the tiger rumbling. They have no weapons and can only hope for the danger to pass or a third party intervention. Sounds pretty much like Europe’s current predicament. Now, in a situation like that, do you think it would help the men if they were to hold up a sign to the tiger that they have “strategic autonomy”? 

I don’t think so either.

I am very curious to hear more today of the effort to devise a Strategic Compass for the EU. And what will Europe use the compass for? To find the tiger - or to run away from it? 

Do we have alternatives to strategic autonomy? 

“Shared security” might be a more realistic one, in line with what Monsieur le President just said. But that’s not very sexy, is it? 

Basically European citizens seem to want independence from the US, but they are not willing to pay for it. The narrative of strategic autonomy appeals to this fiction and self-deception. Hence its popularity. And it really sounds better than “we want to have our cake, and eat it”. 

Personally I like “Strategic sovereignty” even better - because it underlines the European right to make its own decisions in global affairs. Thinking independently, nobody can quarrel with that. 

Now let’s look at the hard part: acting independently.

If you compare present European defence capabilities - and that’s the French and British included - to twenty years ago, it’s breath-taking. I’m not sure European citizens realize just how immense the destruction is. The trend is upward again, but it will take a giant political earthquake to set off the kind of investments needed for “strategic autonomy”.  

Does that mean the EU is weak? Not necessarily. The EU still is a unique experiment in governance. We have instruments, we have elements of a super power. But just like our strength flows from the pooling of sovereignty - so does our biggest weakness, easily spotted and exploited by other powers: lack of cohesion, lack of purpose, and the increasing fragility of our way of life. 

Strategic sovereignty has some bumper sticker appeal

Within those limits we need to define where our common interests lie. This is needed when it comes to our immediate neighbours to the east and south but also with regard to China. Europeans are sceptical about teaming up with the US against China - for understandable reasons. Still, our interests may dictate that in a range of fields it’s beneficial to team up vis-a-vis China - just like in others it may not be. You need strategic sovereignty to make those decisions, you need shared security - currently expressed in Nato - not to be overrun or coerced into doing things you don’t want.

So the combination of those two notions is about as far as we can go. Will that strategic sovereignty be limited? Of course. That follows from our own choices in the past quarter of a century - including the democratic decision to be militarily weak. There is no quick escape. But in order to have more policy options in 25 years time - you have to change course now.   

In conclusion: the notion of strategic sovereignty is useful as an expression of European self-respect. But I worry about the gap between ambitions and capabilities - and where it can lead to. It’s like in the love song by Simply Red, where they sing: “So now we’ve got our independence, what are we going to do with it?”  

Brexit, the US pivot to Asia, and China’s rise are all forcing the EU to increase its capacity to act. And Strategic sovereignty has some bumper sticker appeal. But beware that when political aspirations clash with deeply-held national security considerations - the latter will win. That happened in Australia, and it may happen in individual EU member States. So choose a path that really strengthens Europe, instead of breaking it further apart. 

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