The key to answering the question of whether Europe can achieve “strategic autonomy” lies in defining what this means. “Strategic” indicates autonomy in the political objectives Europe pursues, in the ways it pursues them, and in responding to the consequences of each.
There are challenges in each of these areas. Defining objectives is easy, especially when worded in vague and politically-correct ways. But objectives become meaningful only if they correspond to the wants and concerns of the one behind them. The real question is: does Europe have common wants and concerns?
The answer is no — because the concerns of the countries in the north of the continent are different from those in the south, which are also vastly different from those in the centre and the east. An observer might say that there is common ground between these countries, for example in wanting to curb immigration. This is true — but their exposure to immigration is different, which means their perspectives on it, and their approaches to it, are also different. Perhaps more importantly, the more observers move away from the issue of migration, the more glaring the divergences in priorities and concerns between the different parts of the European continent become.
These differences did not matter much in the past, because at that time France and Germany ruled supreme. This is not the case anymore. Over the past two decades, the European Union has expanded; many member states have become more economically independent; and many, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have gained a confidence that was lacking in the period that followed their emergence from under the Soviet cloak in the early 1990s. Whereas in the past they begrudgingly accepted Franco-German leadership, now they bluntly do not.
What further complicates the issue is that France and Germany disagree on Europe’s strategic autonomy. France seems convinced that Europe must set its own strategic objectives and have the means of pursuing them independently of the US. Germany, on the other hand, sees a major value in building on the alliance with the US.
This disagreement goes to the heart of visions about the future of the European Union and its positioning in a world that will soon be occupied by a grand confrontation between the US and China. It also dilutes the EU’s political will, which is a requirement for the drive towards true strategic autonomy.
There is also a problem of resources. The two most important means of projecting power are money and arms. But money is scarce these days, given the economic contraction as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. And there are many competing priorities for spending it that leave little over in terms of deploying funds for strategic objectives outside the European Union.
Arms are even more complicated. Europe has relied on NATO for its defence for almost 70 years. The essence of the European project has been about preventing conflict on the continent. Since the end of the Cold War, this project has increasingly become about bridging the economic gap between the west and the east of the continent and later about maintaining high standards of living for all European societies. All of this has made Europe not only instinctively wary of engaging in serious conflicts, but often actively try to avoid them. When it has entered conflicts, it has often found its ability to use arms acutely lacking.
Today, the situation is even more problematic because Britain has been one of the very few European powers with a serious military capacity and the will to engage in international armed conflicts. Post-Brexit, Europe’s ability to resort to hard power will be even more diminished.
Even seeing Europe through the prism of its geography imposes challenges for the idea of strategic autonomy. European geography used to be a point of strength because during the 70 years since the end of World War II it was the most strategically important theatre of political confrontation between the US and the former Soviet Union and later Russia. Moreover, Europe’s ability to transcend the horrors of the killing of 40 million people on the continent in the first half of the 20th century and to pursue a project leading to peace and prosperity made its story crucially important and inspiring for the world as a whole.
The fact that European manufacturing became a major driver of the global economy justified Europe’s leading say in international organisations and global governance.
But Europe is no longer the most important strategic theatre of global power dynamics. Asia is. The essence and beautiful meanings of the European project are facing serious threats as a result of the rise of the far-right across the continent and the resulting dilution of true liberalism in many European countries. As for manufacturing and technologies shaping the world economy, Europe is now far behind the US and several Asian countries. All of this does not render strategic autonomy impossible. But these factors do make it a very hard road to take.
Perhaps the more important question is whether strategic autonomy is desirable when the world is on the verge of a new global confrontation between the US and China. This question is timely, because the US has already started calling on Europe to stand with it in this burgeoning confrontation. Such calls will intensify because the US will need Europe’s large market as a leverage in this confrontation.
This presents Europe with a dilemma. On the one hand, it might strengthen the need for strategic autonomy, if Europe is agnostic about this confrontation. On the other hand, however, it also gives Europe an incentive to side with the US, its historical and, many would still argue, cultural ally.
There is an opportunity here for Europe. If Europe indeed sides with the US in this inevitable confrontation between the US and China, it can bring to this alliance more value than it did at other times in the past. This is because the US is entering this confrontation facing serious issues on its home front. The US is being pulled in opposite directions regarding its own view of itself, the values of its society, and its conception of its role in the world. As a result, a successful and coherent Europe can help America.
Europe cannot interfere in the complicated and multi-faceted socio-political situation in the US, and it would not want to do so. But if Europe manages to continue with its economic advances, retain the functionality of its union, and at the same time preserve that union’s serious upholding of liberalism, it will have presented the US with a successful example of how to align opposing currents behind a credible centre. It will also have presented the US with a confident and sure-footed partner.
This approach does not give Europe strategic autonomy. But it does give it a serious say in shaping an alliance of which it has been a part for eight decades. This is an alliance under whose protection Europe has managed to douse its demons, conjure a beautiful dream, and pursue that dream to a marvellous level of success. Moreover, this approach is actually achievable.
*The writer is the author of Islamisim: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly