The “strategic autonomy” Hollande talked about is not at all a term devoid of content, and the French President knows this very well. In his interview, he suggested that the EU already has a strategic stature, for instance when he pointed out that France’s decision to act in a militarily interventionist manner against terrorists in Mali will soon have to be a joint decision, not belonging to a single power. In support of his assertion – Europe has strategic autonomy – one can find several other recent actions. That is how the EU’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis (under OSCE aegis) must be considered, when the ‘Normandy format’ guided by the Merkel-Hollande duo managed to produce “Minsk-2” (February 2016), although some vehemently criticised the content of this agreement.
Similarly, one should also mention here the determined intervention to stop the wave of refugees in the spring of 2016, which was reflected in the signing of an accord with Turkey, but was also supplemented by a maritime operation that NATO rapidly staged at the EU’s request (February 2016). The EU carried out small-scale operations – maybe veritable tests of strategic capabilities at Union level – in the Balkans (in Macedonia or in Kosovo), or maritime operations off the coasts of Somalia, but they did not go beyond the stage of an exercise of capability, even though they outlined that such missions can be politically undertaken and carried out – with some difficulty – strategically.
Historically, the EU has undoubtedly militated in favour of obtaining this strategic autonomy. Worth mentioning here would be the “Saint-Malo process,” started in 1997 following an agreement between France and Britain – not only the EU’s sole powers from the standpoint of nuclear capabilities but also the only ones with intervention missions outside of Europe – which intended to form a military arm of the organisation, capable of equipping it strategically.
The initial, very strong opposition on the part of the U.S. and UK – fearful of the impact such a process would have on NATO, talking about the “3D” threat (duplication, de-linking and discriminating), meaning that the planned European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) would superimpose itself on NATO, tear Europe’s link with the alliance and discriminate non-EU NATO members – gradually gave way to a different orientation. While the ESDI, launched after Saint-Malo, failed toward 2004, it was replaced with what was dubbed “Headline Goal 2011,” namely the setting up of a significant number of battlegroups (battalion-size tactical groups) by pooling the military resources of the organisation’s members (Romania is part of two such battlegroups). This has failed to convince so far, none of them being used for strategic missions.
A veritable Trans-Atlantic crisis occurred during the invasion of Iraq – started in 2003 –, with France, led by President J. Chirac, trying but failing to provide the EU with strategic leadership. Toward 2010-2011, there was a remarkable change, the U.S. becoming a strong supporter of Europe being a larger contributor to its own security, a process in which we are in today, when President D. Trump seems to succeed in obtaining a European commitment in this sense. Hollande’s position – Europe with strategic autonomy – thus perfectly fits this new trend.
But the EU’s strategic autonomy does not entail solely the absence of U.S. hostility or support, but also the political will of all the Union’s members. And here there are great unknowns, even though, for instance, an agreement of strategic cooperation between the EU and the Atlantic Alliance was signed at the NATO Summit in Warsaw. Not to mention that the “Global Strategy” undertaken by the EU in the second half of last year concretely talks about the construction of this strategic autonomy that would transform it into an international actor to match the combined GDP of its members. It’s just that the existence of some asperity within the EU, overall on the territory of Europe, prevents, in perspective, the smooth evolution of this process of constructing the planned strategic autonomy. Apart from the sometimes-massive differences in strategic and security culture between member states, there are older hostilities and disputes, still unconsumed even by current generations.
Let’s not forget that even in the immediately post-Cold War era, bloody conflicts took place on European territory (Yugoslavia). Without covering all the possible examples, I mention here the dispute between Greece and Macedonia, over the country’s name, the dispute that historically involves Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, or the fact that Kosovo is yet to be recognised as an independent state by all the states of the organisation (hence differences in foreign policy orientation, a significant chapter of intra-EU differences). Similarly, it must be obvious that strategic autonomy entails unity of action from which joint political will for action stems, and this requires an identity in assessing risks and threats, which does not occur today, there being notable differences from this standpoint between the EU’s East and West. Moreover, the UK preferred to subject its position within the EU to an “in or out” referendum, in June last year, Brexit generating massive vulnerability for Europe precisely in this strategic domain. In fact, concerning Brexit, President Hollande brings a novel view on the motivation for it, which does not prevent him from supporting United Kingdom’s participation in the continental organisation’s “strategic autonomy.”
He mentioned in his interview that “the UK’s problem is this: it had thought that in leaving Europe it would tie up a strategic partnership with the US. But it now happens that the US is closing itself off from the world. The UK has made a bad choice at a bad moment. I regret that.” Hollande’s narrative, giving pre-eminence in the genesis of Brexit to some global strategy calculations on the UK’s part, is entirely different than the one the wave of analyses on the causes of the anti-European vote cast in 2016 got us accustomed to, and opens a different perspective not just on the ongoing geopolitical developments but also on the orientations of the conservative British establishment, Eurosceptic and aiming for a global Anglo-Saxon coalition.
Basically, it’s not solely about unity of political will and coherence of strategic view on the part of EU members – which seems to be far from current realities anyhow –, but there is also need for a certain prioritisation of the objectives entailed by the autonomy mentioned by the French President in this field. Of course, the EU’s leadership structures did some things in this sense – especially last autumn, steps being taken, for instance, in the European defence industry domain – but it’s obviously insufficient. There is the need for visionary prioritisation, which would start off from a general review of defence, carried out by each member state while using a standard algorithm, so that we would have a clear picture of the capabilities existing at organisation level.
Then, a massive intellectual effort will have to be creatively applied in order to identify the security needs at European echelon, in relation to existing or potential threats and then the decision on the instruments needed to cover them, the resources needed and the states’ individual contributions (apart from strategic leadership structures and the mandatory adjacent structures). A long and arduous process which will undeniably be sinusoidal, with ups and downs, but obviously doable. From this standpoint, what Hollande did was launch a call for unity and action to strategically equip the EU and to basically save it from the existing crisis by identifying a domain – maybe the only one – suitable for a joint approach and with chances of success in the medium term.
Because, in the same interview, Hollande also launched the idea – in fact known ever since A. Merkel’s speech on February 3, at the European Council Summit in Malta – of the EU developing at multiple speeds, which is already facing staunch opposition. The strategic autonomy domain, of defending the citizens of the organisation of 27 states in the face of future threats, stands out as a road easier to take than others. Even though oppositions of mark must be overcome along the way, firstly that of the United Kingdom, this probably being the reason behind Paris’s generous proposal to consider the UK as part of the strategic colossus that Europe is in tomorrow’s world, but which needs action to take shape.