Committee on Security and Defence (SEDE)

The EU as a global player: With the ongoing dialogue regarding Europe’s dependence on the U.S. for defence and the need to develop a higher degree of ‘European sovereignty’, how can the EU increase its strategic autonomy with the cooperation of Member States and allies? 


by Frederik Reiff (DE)


Key terms: strategic autonomy, collective defence, defence standardisation, transatlantic relationship.



Image source: EU-NATO cooperation


1.Background and relevance 

When the EU-US relationships became strained under the former US President Trump, there was an increased ambition to develop perspectives for the European defence system. The Trump administration became increasingly unwilling to support global institutions but rather called for higher military spendings by the European Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). European leaders saw that as a moment to advance the strategic autonomy of Europe. While some perceive an increased strategic autonomy as a threat to the transatlantic relationships and NATO, others consider this independence to also benefit Europe's allies, as it reduces their burden and allows them to commit resources to other regions of the world, for example Asia. Whilst there are different opinions, many European leaders see the EU’s strategic autonomy as a way to meet the American demands of a greater contribution to the European security. Ultimately, the increased defensive capability resulting from European strategic autonomy is still meant to be used in strategic partnerships with NATO-allies, especially the US, wherever possible. The Commission regards the concept as complementary to NATO. 


Despite substantial advancements to the European defence policy, many questions and challenges with regards to strategic autonomy remain open. The potential conflict posed by the strategic autonomy with regards to the interests of the EU’s allies and the alliances such as NATO is a challenging issue. Not only on the exterior but also in the interior of Europe, many implications of an increased European defence integration have to be considered, as not all Member States take part in the relevant policies. Furthermore, the role of the European defence industry has to be dealt with, as strategic autonomy encompasses the industrial aspect and production. 


Naturally, the interests of the EU and those of third countries might not always match. Yet, through many dependencies and interconnections, the EU and its Member States fall at risk of being bound by external interests, apparent at the US’s disapproval of PESCO and the EDF, because of concern that it might lower their capacity of selling weapons to Europe. Strategic autonomy is thought to be crucial for ensuring that the EU and its Member States are able to act on their own interests. Therefore, advancements have to be made on both the economical and technological level, as well as in the defence sector. Only by establishing its independence from others, can the EU effectively carry out policies in regards to issues like climate action, human rights, and democracy, etc. which are crucial for the younger generations. 


2.Key stakeholders 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance among 30 countries in Europe and North America, including 21 of the 27 EU Member States. It has the purpose of ensuring  collective defence and security for its members. Consequently, it aims for the territorial security of much of Europe.


The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP) is responsible for carrying out the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) including its component, the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU. The High Representative is assisted by the diplomatic service of the EU, the European External Action Service (EEAS). The EEAS also operates multiple European Defence programmes, in parts together with the European Defence Agency (EDA), which works under the leadership of the HR/VP to improve the European military capabilities through defence cooperation. It operates EU defence initiatives, coordinates capability development and defence cooperation projects between the Member States and promotes research and development. The EDA also initiates and runs training and exercises for the soldiers and supports CSDP missions.


The Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS) leads the European Commission's activities in the Defence Industry, for example through managing the EDF. The DG DEFIS strives to increase the competitiveness and innovation of the European Defence industry through the development of technological and industrial abilities.



Click here to view this Stakeholder Map on Miro.


3.Challenges and measures in place 


Structural challenges

The EU has 27 different militaries, from small ones with just a few hundred active personnel to the ones with up to 200.000 active personnel. Some of them are more advanced than others, as each employs different training and equipment. Throughout its militaries, the European countries operate a vast number of different aircraft, ship, and tank models, leading to duplication in the equipment. As the costs to develop fighter jets or other equipment can go into the billions, it would save a lot of money to combine the development efforts and thus reduce duplication. The EEAS estimates the expected cost reduction to be between 12,50% and 50% of the overall defence spending. Different equipment also reduces the interoperability of the militaries and, therefore, complicates programmes where different militaries work together, for example the EU Battlegroups or joint missions under the CSFP.


To help with coordinating the different militaries and determining possible collaborative projects, the EU launched the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD). Operated by the EDA and the EEAS, it monitors the defence plans of Member States to find synergies and potentials for cooperation. CARD identified  55 opportunities to collaborate on capability development and determined further research projects. It defined six focus areas to concentrate on, including a main battle tank and a new patrol vessel. 


In 2017, the EU started its Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which fosters structural integration between 25 of the 27 national militaries through various projects, including a European drone and a patrol corvette. It is operated by the EEAS and the EDA.  Moreover, the European Defence Fund (EDF) allocates EU funds directly to defence projects for the first time. Under the control of the Parliament and the Commission, the EDF aims to strengthen collaborative projects and the European defence industry. Further projects such as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a new fighter jet platform, and the European Air Transport Command (EATC), which operates the military transport fleets of seven EU Member States, were established intergovernmentally outside of EU structures, contributing significantly to European defence efforts.


Europe as a global actor

Some experts claim that if the EU tries to become more independent from outside parties by loosening its dependencies, third countries will also get more autonomous from the EU, as dependencies are often mutual. If the EU isolates itself too much from external partners, these countries may find fewer reasons to cooperate with the EU. On the other hand, the EU emphasises its understanding of strategic autonomy not as isolation, but rather as cooperating multilaterally wherever possible and acting autonomously wherever necessary. Similar accounts were given by different EU politicians, not only with regards to open strategic autonomy of trade, but also about strategic autonomy as a whole. PESCO is a prime example of this idea: Whilst the intention behind it is to drive structural integration between national militaries and to establish credible European military abilities, the PESCO-projects are open for third-party states, with several already applying to participate in these projects, including Norway and the US


When examined under the lens of EU defence efforts, the relationship between NATO and the EU presents some controversial aspects. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warns that the EU defence projects must not undermine NATO. While US officials and defence companies expressed concerns that European defence efforts might divert resources away from NATO or establish duplicated efforts, these worries are partly based on the potential decrease in US arms sales to Europe. On the other hand, there are serious concerns that Europe might lose interoperability within NATO if it purchases less products from the US. 

The EU paints another picture of the EU-NATO relations: European defence would be complementary to NATO, strengthening the European pillar of NATO and, therefore, reducing the investments of the US towards European defence. NATO would not lose its role as the institution for territorial defence in Europe; instead, Member States would concentrate their defence efforts under the mantle of the EU. The notion that the EU defence efforts are complementary to NATO can be exemplified through the Military Mobility project of PESCO in collaboration with NATO-members USA, Canada, and Norway, which aims at increasing NATO’s and the EU’s ability of moving troops faster across the continent as needed.


Internal divisions

With the ongoing structural integration of the European defence systems, concerns were voiced that the European Defence Policy might gravitate towards the bigger Member States, with them making the decisions and profiting financially. Given that the biggest defence contractors have their headquarters in France, Germany, and Italy, some fear that those countries might disproportionately benefit from the European Defence Fund (EDF). When scrutinising the EDF, some of smaller Member States, for example Bulgaria, emphasised the need to include small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the EDF, while Estonia stressed that the interests of larger and smaller states must be balanced. 


In light of the increasing defence activity of the EU, another challenge might arise from the different levels of integration between Member States. Denmark, for example, does not participate in the CSDP or PESCO, and most PESCO-projects only gather a handful Member States. The projects still help to consolidate the European defence systems, but the limited participation poses a hurdle to a unified European defence policy. It also poses questions about the decision-making within the CSDP. As Denmark does not participate in the CSDP, they seclude themselves from any CFSP-decision that touches matters of defence. Yet for the EDF, which is a regulation of the Commission and the Parliament, the Danish MEPs are involved in the process and Denmark is eligible for funding from the EDF. While the EU sees the EDF and PESCO as part of a comprehensive defence package and therefore closely interconnected, it is in Denmark's interest to have EDF funding independent on entry and/or involvement in PESCO. In favour of the Danish perspective, that companies should be eligible for EDF funding without the need of the country to participate in PESCO or other defence related activities, there is the argument that companies can participate in PESCO projects, even if the country is not a part of PESCO. It is just Member States and the national militaries of the respective Member States that are not part of PESCO. 


4.Further questions 

  • How should the EU position itself towards NATO and the US in the domain of defence?

  • How can the EU deal with internal divisions regarding European defence efforts?

  • How and to what extent should the EU incorporate third countries in its defence structures? Should the possibility to take part in programmes such as PESCO be limited to NATO members?

  • How can the EU overcome structural barriers between the militaries in the domain of equipment, but also in the domains of language or training?

  • How do you see defence being connected to other aspects of strategic autonomy, like research, technology, trade, etc.?


5.Faces of Sustainability

Did you know that of the EUR 200 billion spent annually on defence by the EU Member States, between EUR 25 billion and EUR 100 billion could be saved through defence cooperation and reducing duplication? Working together on defence could be crucial for increasing the financial sustainability of the defence industry and the EU. Using financial resources for duplicate structures does not contribute to economic sustainability . The funding could be used for increasing the power of EU militaries beyond the benefits of cooperation, financing strategies like the European Green Deal or could be given back to European citizens and corporations through lower taxes. However these savings are used, it is sustainable for future generations, as financial, ecological, or political burdens are not brought into the coming decades. 


6.Material for further research


Essential Engagement

  • Look at this factsheet by the European External Action Service on strengthening EU security and defence,

  • Have a look at the interview with the chief of the European Defence Agency, on why we need both strategic autonomy and defence cooperation,

  • Listen to this podcast about strategic autonomy and its implications for the European-American relationship,

  • Read this short article that argues in favour of strategic autonomy.


Additional Engagement 

  • Here is a curated Mix collection with articles, research papers, and legal documents about Europe’s defence policy,

  • Here is a YouTube playlist with a collection of videos and podcasts about the strategic autonomy of Europe.