The European Union’s strategic autonomy in defense is on everybody’s lips since it was put forward as a long-term goal in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy. Yet, it remains unclear what it means in practice and how it would impact NATO and our trans-Atlantic relationship. This has led to a mostly academic debate about the concept’s end goal, fueled by doubts and fears stoked from both sides of the pond. However, the risk of too much abstract talk is that we get distracted from the concrete action needed to bring us closer to, what in my view, is a laudable objective.
It is time we approach strategic autonomy more positively and look at it as a constructive project — not something directed against NATO, the United States or anybody else. It’s about putting EU member states in a position where they can autonomously develop, operate, modify and maintain the full spectrum of defense capabilities they need. It’s about giving the EU the option and tools — political, operational, technological, industrial — to take military action whenever needed, either together with partners (notably NATO) wherever possible, or separately if necessary.
Instead of undermining trans-Atlantic trust and security, as some fear, a more robust and autonomous European defense will ultimately lead to a stronger NATO. It is in the interest of our trans-Atlantic partners to have a more capable and efficient EU in defense. The U.S. wants Europe to take on its fair share of burden in defense? A stronger and more credible European pillar in NATO will contribute to that.
The EU’s ambition, as stated in the 2016 Global Strategy, is to reach “an appropriate level of strategic autonomy” in order to “ensure Europe’s ability to safeguard security within and beyond its borders.”
However, it takes more than ambition and political will to get there.
Strategic autonomy presupposes at least two things. First, that our member states’ armed forces have at their disposal the full spectrum of military assets that, taken together, could enable the EU to take military action, and on its own if necessary. Second, that the functionality and usability of these assets is not restricted by any technological or political caveats controlled by non-European actors.
Today, admittedly, this is not the case yet. Hence the need to invest more, and better, in defense. The good news is that we are moving in the right direction, both in terms of “more” and “better.”
But more spending does not automatically guarantee more efficiency or interoperability. To achieve that, we must invest better through cooperation: from joint priority setting to the development, procurement and deployment of cutting-edge defense capabilities.
Prioritization is the foundation stone on which all subsequent steps must build. It is already in place: the Capability Development Plan, developed through the European Defence Agency and revised in 2018, lists member states’ joint priorities for the years to come. One of them targets cross-domain capabilities that can contribute to strategic autonomy. Using the priorities as a compass will ensure efforts and funding are spent on assets that are really needed and contribute to making the EU more efficient in military terms. The Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, another new tool to boost joint capability planning and development, will help keep the focus on agreed priorities.
To achieve strategic autonomy, the EU must also be able to master cutting-edge technologies and their integration into defense products. That’s why it is so crucial that it acquires, maintains and develops the technological knowledge and industrial manufacturing skills required to produce the defense equipment it needs. Those key strategic activities have to be preserved and strengthened if we want to turn the goal of strategic autonomy into reality.
EDA, which is the EU hub for defense innovation and collaborative capability development, has for years been involved in this critical work. The agency identifies critical, overarching strategic research areas and other key strategic activities underpinning the EU’s strategic autonomy. The aim is to identify, and then support, must-have technologies and industrial capacities, without which strategic autonomy isn’t possible. Artificial intelligence, micro- and nanotechnologies, or unmanned and autonomous systems are only a few examples of such critical disruptive technologies that are reshaping defense.
It’s through concrete action — not political and academic rhetoric — that we can make progress toward strategic autonomy. At the same time, we must ensure coherence and avoid any unnecessary duplication with NATO, which will continue to be the cornerstone of collective defense for its members.
EU strategic autonomy isn’t necessarily just around the corner, but it is attainable. The closer we get to it and the more additional defense cooperation it triggers, the better.
Jorge Domecq is chief executive of the European Defence Agency.