More than three years have passed since EU leaders adopted a grandly named “global strategy” for foreign and security policy. It pulled no punches about Europe’s vulnerability to internal and external threats, observing: “We live in times of existential crisis, within and beyond the European Union.” The June 2016 document identified “strategic autonomy” as a core EU goal. It promised an integrated foreign and security policy, based on “military capabilities and antiterrorism as much as on job opportunities, inclusive societies and human rights”.
The EU’s ambition for global autonomy remains intact. But it is hard to discern much actual progress. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, promises to lead a “geopolitical” executive, unafraid to pursue EU interests in a manner as hard-nosed as China, Russia and the US. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, says that Europeans must “learn to use the language of power”. Behind these brave words, it is far from clear that national capitals agree on what strategic autonomy should mean in practice.
In the eyes of Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, it should mean greater independence from Washington. He says Nato is “brain-dead”, the US security commitment to Europe is in doubt and the EU should open a constructive dialogue with Moscow.
Italy, Portugal and other countries located far from Russia sympathise to some extent with Mr Macron’s views. But matters look different from the perspective of the Baltic states, Nordic countries, Poland and Romania. All feel justifiable anxiety after Russia’s seizure of Crimea, intervention in eastern Ukraine and persistent interference across the EU’s neighbourhood.
The risk with Mr Macron’s approach is that it may sharpen disagreements in the EU by prompting central and eastern European states to defy France and double down on their US security guarantee. Moreover, Germany has no desire to see Nato further weakened after the jolts the alliance has suffered since President Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House.
France feels understandable frustration at a certain strategic inertia in Germany in the face of rising global tensions. Likewise the Trump administration and its predecessors have been right to criticise Berlin’s defence spending, which remains below agreed Nato targets despite large German budget surpluses racked up year after year. The truth is that resistance to a more vigorous approach to defence and security is rooted deeply in German society and the political party system.
China’s expanding global reach, Russian truculence and recent US behaviour certainly make it desirable that the EU should think and act as more than the formidable power in trade and business regulation that it already is. There is merit in the idea of a European Security Council that France and Germany are exploring. It would make sense for the UK to be part of such a council, especially if Brexit goes ahead.
Yet the Europeans must be realistic. For years to come, military budgets at EU and national level are likely to be too small and uncoordinated for genuine strategic autonomy. True, there exist non-military routes to influence, such as a bigger world financial role for the euro. But this will remain elusive as long as investors worry about the long-term resilience of the eurozone.
The biggest barriers are psychological. Europe is divided in its own mind about how to respond to the world’s troubling new geopolitical realities. In such circumstances it is premature, and may even be dangerous, to question the transatlantic alliance when Europe has nothing to replace it with.