Daily recap: The post-COVID-19 world: Europe’s path to strategic autonomy

Event Reports

Peace, Security & Defence

Here is your recap of the first day of Friends of Europe’s Security Summit

Monday 23 November

The post-Covid-19 world: Europe’s path to strategic autonomy

03:04 – “Is strategic autonomy a mainly military concept or should we go beyond that for Europe’s supply chains, industry and technology?” asked the moderator Jamie Shea, Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General at NATO. He was also keen to learn more in this Security Summit’s first session about Europe’s vital relations with NATO and the transatlantic partnership: “Capabilities are the key. So how can Europe put the military punch behind its geopolitical ambitions?”

09:22 – “Self-reliance is not enough for Europe, it’s better to be a strong partner with NATO and transatlantic security,” said Raimundas Karoblis, Minister of National Defence, Lithuania. A Europe that has strategic autonomy needs more responsibility, resilience and readiness (the 3 ‘Rs’). Responsibility requires real capabilities and the proper defence funding, so Europe can defend its territories and promote security beyond its borders. Emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic will mean focusing on a full spectrum of threats, key goals and the 3 ‘Rs’, plus strong cooperation with Europe’s allies. The newly elected US President, Joe Biden, opens a new chapter of transatlantic relations that are vital for European security.

Karoblis had these recommendations for Europe:

  • Look at future military technology.
  • Build sophisticated defence capabilities.
  • Cooperation for defence solutions with our partners and allies.

Nathalie Loiseau, Chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Security and Defence, called for an updated definition of European security, because Europe is threatened by non-state actors (e.g. terrorist groups) and non-military means, like cyberattacks on public services, critical infrastructure and electoral processes. She noted how Europe is surrounded by vulnerable, fragile and unstable neighbourhoods, including Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Western Balkans – places where NATO is not focused. Covid-19 also showed how vulnerable we are and although NATO is an asset, it’s not enough.

21:30 – “We need more NATO and more EU, with the latter as a relevant European partner and pillar in NATO and as an autonomous player when NATO is not able or willing to act,” said Loiseau. She was pleased that the EU is doing better at facing common threats, such as sending French troops to Baltic countries or posting Lithuanian troops abroad. She concluded that the EU must change to be a relevant actor globally: “We need a strong Europe and a strong ally of the US, so we must be strong together and defend common values and interests.”

The MEP also called for:

  • European Defence Fund to boost R&D on military equipment and be serious on operational commitments, through PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation).
  • More capabilities, but without redundancies, even though these help cybersecurity.
  • New relationships with the UK, a strategic security partner that just left the EU.

Boosting EU cooperation

28:00 – “The destabilisation of Covid-19 triggered national responses, with many governments putting armed forces at the service of civilians,” noted Elena Gómez de Castro, Director General for Defence Policy at the Spanish Ministry of Defence. She also highlighted the great solidarity from the international community, with NATO and EU support for citizens to boost the bloc’s resilience, examples being the A400M military transport plane’s strategic airlift capabilities, plus field hospitals and military pharmacies. Yet all these partners must continue to work and draw lessons together, to ensure a similar crisis doesn’t happen again.

Gómez de Castro praised multinational initiatives like the Eurofighter Typhoon, an example of how Europe is able and willing to do things, as well as PESCO and the European Defence Fund. She believes that future PESCO projects will operate differently, modelled on the current construction of a European Patrol Corvette ship by four EU countries. Her other recommendations covered focusing on multilateralism (NATO support for the EU), digital security, preserving democracies, including cybersecurity, preserving international peace and stability, and fighting disinformation.

35:32 – “Because of fiscal pressures and challenged defence budgets, Europe must work together and increase cooperation, especially for military, industry and technology: this will help strategic autonomy,” said Jiří Šedivý, Chief Executive at the European Defence Agency (EDA). For Europe to achieve that autonomy, it still needs i) strategic transport, especially in the air, ii) autonomous command and control supported by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and iii) air and missile defence.

Šedivý said that Europe knows what it wants and has its priorities well defined for the mid- to long term. All priorities were defined a few years ago, to complement and not duplicate NATO capabilities. The challenge is to bring those priorities into national defence planning processes: “We must deliver a real change to ensure true strategic autonomy, and the credibility of the EU strategy as autonomous and contributing to global security in the next five to 15 years,” helped by permanent cooperation instruments like the European Defence Fund.

Regarding capabilities, ideally EU countries must be able to autonomously develop, operate, modify and maintain the full spectrum of high-end defence capabilities they need. Key goals should be autonomy of technologies, industry, operations, and political decision-making.

Šedivý added: “Covid hasn’t stopped geopolitical competition, so Europe needs more strategic autonomy and now we have the tools for that. In the long term, we want enhanced military mobility, covering the ground, air and maritime: these are key to make the EU more secure.”

Notable audience contributions in session one:

With the EU unanimity rule, isn’t there a danger of EU Member States not feeling ownership of policy individually? (Paul Taylor, Senior Fellow and Politico Europe-at-large columnist). MEP Nathalie Loiseau replied it would be better to abolish that rule for decisions on security and defence and foreign policy.

Given severe spending cuts to European military mobility and the European Defence Fund, will the rest of the world take the EU’s defence ambitions seriously? (Brooks Tigner, Jane’s Defence Weekly). Raimundas Karoblis argued the cuts won’t have such an impact, although “European military mobility is a litmus test for European security commitments.”

The view from the US: a conversation between Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and General Tod Wolters

This session explored how Europe can contribute to stability in a wider world, and how institutions on both sides of the Atlantic must step up, while engaging with and challenging each other.

67:43 – “The biggest challenge for the EU, NATO and US is balancing and matching China, politically and in trade and freedom of movement and technology,” said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former Secretary General of NATO and Board member in charge of Friends of Europe’s Peace, Security and Defence work. “NATO must be an alliance to project hard power globally, if necessary. I’d like to see the EU do the same in its own environment, without taking over the competence of NATO.”

De Hoop Scheffer has proposed setting up a ‘European Security Council’ as an informal institution in Brussels. It would include France, Germany, the UK, the Secretary General of NATO, and the Chair of the European Council. “So if there’s a crisis, we can define how to act, i.e. through the EU, NATO or a combination, or a coalition of the willing. This would help strategic autonomy without harming NATO and beef up what the EU can offer in times of crises, when the EU can’t rely on the US.”

General Tod Wolters, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Commander, U.S. European Command, praised two NATO near-term accomplishments: North Macedonia joining, as the 30th nation; and Joint Force Command Norfolk, in US, to increase the alliance’s capability to extend freedom across the Atlantic. In his view, “Our ability to generate peace in all domains and all regions from a comprehensive perspective in competition to crisis, in conflict, is growing every second.” But for Europe to successfully keep the peace, it must improve its speed and posture in all categories and regions.

70:40 – “In the last six years, NATO allies have increased the percentages of their investments, now 100 billion non-USD. This is good for our strategic alignment and transparency, in military and non-military dimensions.” Moreover, NATO has its first Military Strategy for 65 years, plus a concept for deterrence/defence of the Euro-Atlantic area and soon a strategic plan for the military domain. Wolters said these will allow more focused national plans for the military.

86:15 – “In the last year we’ve improved our comprehensive defence and shared response with the nations understanding what happens in air, land, sea, space and cyber and software. So we can detect violations of our sovereign domains and territories and we can respond – that’s great solidarity.”

Wolters called for NATO to increase its vigilance where there’s malign influence below the levels of kinetic conflict, such as in Europe’s information domain. He also said Europe is “doing badly on sharing the alliance’s financial burden.”

89:13 “As SACEUR, I have very good relations with my French and German counterparts and see good growth of mission capabilities. Campaign momentum is getting better every day, improving dramatically.”

Referring to the EU, both speakers in the conversation said they preferred the term ‘strategic power’ to ‘strategic autonomy’. Wolters added: “There’s value in our autonomy, as it forces large organisations to take responsibility for their actions when generating peace inside and outside of Europe. Militarily we must make best use of all our investments.”

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