Security and Defence


European strategic autonomy: seizing the momentum

11 Mar 2021 - 11:54
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Various European leaders have highlighted the changing role that the European Union (EU) should play in the international arena: it should become more geopolitical, it should become a better global partner and security provider, and it should be able to safeguard its own interests and make its own decisions. To live up to these ambitions, now is the time for the EU to act. This is especially true considering the increasingly challenging international environment in which the EU operates: a weakened international rules-based order; threats posed by actors like Russia and China; concerns that the United States (US) security guarantee is no longer self-evident (independent of who occupies the White House); and the outbreak of a worldwide pandemic that has demonstrated that EU member states first and foremost act in their own individual interest. In light of these developments and to live up to Europe’s broader ambitions, as laid down in the EU Global Strategy (2016) and underscored by European leaders such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell, it is inevitable to strive for an increasing level of European strategic autonomy (ESA), making it “goal number one of this generation”[1].

"It is inevitable to strive for an increasing level of European strategic autonomy, making it “goal number one of this generation"."

Over time, the urgency that the EU should become less dependent on others while strengthening its own ability to act autonomously in the realm of security and defence has gained considerable attention – or as Josep Borrell put it: “there is an increased momentum”[2]. This trend of increasing awareness that Europe should be able to act autonomously can also be witnessed in a poll, which indicates that a vast majority of European citizens are in favour of a Europe that looks after its own defence capabilities.[3] A Clingendael Barometer publication demonstrates that 72% of the Dutch population believe that Europe must be able to independently operate at the military level without the support of the US.[4]

ESA, however, has also become one of the most prominent buzzwords in the field of European security and defence. The concept has sparked much debate and controversy, both within the EU as well as across the Atlantic. The controversy results partially from the unclarity as to what ESA means and what its implications might be. Proponents emphasise that realising ESA can contribute both to a better transatlantic burden-sharing as well as increasing the EU’s responsibility to guarantee its own security interests. Opponents, on the other hand, challenge the feasibility of achieving strategic autonomy and express concerns about potentially offending the US in the EU’s pursuit towards becoming more autonomous in the field of security and defence. Various attempts have been made to clarify what ESA entails[5], but so far, these attempts have not resulted in an agreement at the political level on the definition of ESA.

"ESA has become one of the most prominent buzzwords in European security and defence."

Despite the widespread controversy surrounding ESA, it is unlikely that the term will disappear anytime soon or that it will be replaced by a different concept. Using another term will not solve the existing controversy, especially since terms like ‘European sovereignty’ might even spark more discussion among EU member states. Instead, the focus should lie on questions like: what capabilities are required, which (bilateral) partnerships are essential, and what should the division of labour with NATO look like? Hence, it is about time to move away from the conceptual discussion and to put the money where one’s mouth is and prepare concrete action to be undertaken in the nearby future. 

"It is about time to put the money where one's mouth is."

An essential tool that can be used to shift the discussion and to prepare concrete action in the nearby future is the Strategic Compass exercise. The Compass has to provide detailed political, strategic direction for EU security and defence, which can help the EU in “creating a common way of looking at the world, of defining threats and challenges as the basis of addressing them”[6]. A first step in this process was an intelligence-led threat analysis, which serves as input for the execution of the four ‘baskets’ of the Strategic Compass: crisis management, capabilities, resilience and partnerships. Additionally, while the EU Global Strategy (2016) lacked clarity on how the EU should live up to its level of ambition, the Strategic Compass will provide further elaboration on how to implement ‘more European responsibility’. Thereby, the Compass will seek to connect the EU’s strategic, operational and capability needs. Even though it is unlikely that the Strategic Compass will lead to the creation of a coherent European strategic culture, the exercise will be essential in providing the EU with more substance on its level of ambition and considering the implications for crisis management, capabilities, resilience and partnerships. Therefore, the exercise is of the utmost importance, as it can significantly contribute to closing the gap between the EU’s ambition and reality.

"The fate of the EU's ambitions in security and defence lies in the hands of its member states."

In the end, however, just like with any politically sensitive issue, the fate of the EU’s ambitions in the field of security and defence lies in the hands of its member states. To fulfil these ambitions, it requires their political will to pool a certain level of sovereignty and decision-making authority, and their willingness to provide substantial (financial) contributions. When political willingness is lacking and (financial) contributions remain absent, it is impossible for the EU to become strategically autonomous. Consequently, a continuously bickering EU will become internally divided and might eventually lose its position and relevance in the international arena. EU member states and its leaders seem to be aware of the challenging international environment and that becoming more strategically autonomous is therefore inevitable. Moreover, now that a government transition in the US has taken place, the possibility arises to establish a new transatlantic deal with the Biden Administration. Such a deal will allow for a growing level of European responsibility, without offsetting the US. Together, the growing awareness among EU member states and the government transition in the US provide a unique window of opportunity to realise the ambition to become more strategically autonomous. This window should not be wasted, as it might not be there forever.

Follow @AdajaStoetman and @Clingendaelorg on Twitter.


[2] Josep Borrell, ‘European security and defence: the way forward’, 21 June 2020.
[3] Ivan Krastev & Mark Leonard, ‘The Crisis of American Power: How Europeans See Biden’s America’, European Council on Foreign Relations, January 2021.
[4] D. Zandee, C. Houtkamp & M. Sie Dhian Ho, ‘De Nederlandse wending naar Europa. Steun voor meer Europese militaire zelfstandigheid, taakspecialisatie en een hoger defensiebudget’, Clingendael Barometer Alert, December 2020.
[5] A useful definition of ESA put forward by the Clingendael Institute is the following: European strategic autonomy in security and defence is the ability of Europe to make its own decisions, and to have the necessary means, capacity and capabilities available to act upon these decisions, in such a manner that it is able to properly function on its own when needed”. In: D. Zandee, B. Deen, K. Kruijver & A. Stoetman, ‘European Strategic Autonomy in Security and Defence. Now the going gets tough, it’s time to get going’, The Clingendael Institute, December 2020.
[6] Josep Borrell, ‘European security and defence: the way forward’, 21 June 2020.