The EU, NATO and beyond: should Europe aim for strategic autonomy in defence?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Juraj Majcin
Juraj Majcin

Programme Manager for Peace, Security & Defence at Friends of Europe and Multilateral Advisor at the Extended Reality Safety Initiative (XRSI)

Picture of Xavier Bento
Xavier Bento

Programme Assistant at Friends of Europe

The discussion around European strategic autonomy is a lively one. In defence, its advocates and detractors regularly clash over whether the continent would gain or lose more by achieving it. The ongoing war in Ukraine has thrown the debate under the spotlight once again when it comes to European security.

Interestingly, there are many areas where proponents and critics of strategic autonomy may agree regarding what European decision-makers must do to enhance the continent’s security. Despite large differences, views on European strategic autonomy from both sides of the former Iron Curtain can form a bipartisan proposal for European defence.

This #CriticalThinking article will set out this differing opinion with the autonomy-wary opinion voiced by Juraj Majcin – of Slovak origin – greatly echoing the view central and eastern Europeans often hold, while the pro-autonomy position will be articulated by Xavier Bento – a Belgian – conveying the still-minority but increasingly prevalent stance of western Europeans on the issue, with the exception of the United Kingdom.

Juraj Majcin

European strategic autonomy, or the capacity of Europe to act alone, depends first and foremost on Europe having the necessary defence capabilities. Therefore, if Europe – by any definition – wants to be a truly independent actor in the security realm, it needs to significantly increase its investment in military modernisation and procurement of new weapons.

The complaints about unfair burden sharing between the United States and Europe have become a recurrent feature of transatlantic relations. In this regard, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a true wake-up call for Europeans, making European capitals realise that security comes with a price tag.

Without a political agreement on European defence cooperation, joint defence projects will be limited in scope and often undermined by national politics

Striving to backfill weapons donations to Ukraine and update their ageing weapon systems, many European NATO members went on a shopping spree for new military hardware. Germany reversed its long-standing tradition of cautious and rather limited military spending by pledging to boost its defence budget by €100bn. The European Union adopted several instruments to support its member states in joint military procurement efforts and development of common defence projects. In her recent State of the European Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the creation of the European Sovereignty Fund, which will aim to increase European key defence capabilities, such as air defence systems, man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADs) and ammunition, among other non-military goals.

Although these initiatives present a platform for greater cooperation among EU member states in security and defence matters, and enhancement of European defence industry, Europe cannot fully modernise its armies without the significant involvement of US arms manufacturers. The best illustration of this reality is the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a joint European venture to develop a new generation fighter jet. Despite initial hopes and grandiose objectives, the project has stalled due to prevailing disagreements on the work shared between the participating countries – France, Germany and Spain – as each country is eager to protect its domestic defence industry. The only tangible result of this initiative is that quite a few EU member states, including Germany, are already queuing to get Lockheed Martin’s F-35s as no European aerospace producer is able to manufacture a comparable fighter jet. This example and the relatively modest objectives of the European Strategic Compass attest to the fact that without a political agreement on European defence cooperation, joint defence projects will be limited in scope and often undermined by national politics.

Therefore, given the urgency of the Russian threat, Europe should prioritise re-armament and modernisation of its military and rely on US weaponry to get the world’s most advanced capabilities, instead of establishing complex joint defence initiatives without sufficient political will.

Xavier Bento

Europe is reliant, and indeed dependent, on the American defence industry for its security. This is a fair and factual observation, not because the European industry is unable to produce quality weapons and systems, but because Europe made the political choice to rely on the US decades ago. Fortunately, this problematic reality can be overcome within the framework of the EU.

Indeed, the EU has projects specifically designed to bolster the industrial capacity of its member states by jointly producing defence materials and increasing the interoperability between their armed forces. The three main initiatives – the European Defence Fund (EDF), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) – together offer great prospects for a truly autonomous European armament industry. The EDF boosts national investments in coordinated defence research and finances joint defence industrial projects. PESCO enhances structural integration between national militaries through collaborative training projects in all spheres of military activity – land, maritime, air, cyber and space. In direct relation to these, CARD provides a picture of the existing defence capability landscape in Europe and identifies potential areas for collaborative defence plannings and procurements.

Europe will need to address existing industry rifts on its own as the US become progressively distanced

In the long term, these nascent initiatives promise increased interoperability and more effective cooperation than continued reliance on American weapons. Purchasing weapons and systems that are designed and developed by a foreign power without any European involvement presents obvious interoperability limits. Also, EU member states should not accept the idea that the only way to bolster European interoperability is to buy non-European hardware.

EU initiatives can fill existing gaps in the European defence industry if there is the political will within Europe to fill them. Von der Leyen’s recent announcement of the European Sovereignty Fund constitutes a strong signal in that direction. But most of all, Europe will need to address existing industry rifts on its own as the US become progressively distanced, both strategically and politically.

The political aspect of the discussion around European strategic autonomy pertains to whether Europe, the United States or both sides of the Atlantic are willing politically to guarantee European security.

Xavier Bento

It is incontestable that the US is and will become more and more distanced from Europe’s security interests.

Strategically, since Obama’s first term, Washington has turned more and more towards the Asia Pacific, considering its security interests have increasingly resided in the region. While such a pivot makes sense from a US perspective, it contrasts with Europe’s security interests that are still very much located on its borders, particularly with Russia but also north Africa and the Caucasus region.

This logical change in America’s security priorities signals that the US will inevitably dedicate less resources and focus to the areas that are truly critical for European security. The biggest and most worrying shift in America’s positioning is of a political nature. Regrettably, the US has ceased to be a reliable ally for Europe in the security realm since former president Donald Trump held office. Trump’s term coincided with a period of unprecedented uncertainty for Europeans regarding American security guarantees, as the US opted for courses of actions that greatly endangered Europe’s stability and security even when both continents’ strategic interests were objectively aligned.

Europe has no choice but to develop its own, separate, defence capabilities

An illustration of this shift was Trump’s decision in October 2019 to withdraw US troops from north-eastern Syria against the counsel of his military advisors and regardless of any strategic logic. Even more concerning, Trump repeatedly mentioned the possibility of pulling the US out of NATO, which former top aides recently claimed that he planned to do if elected for a second term. Not only does this US political shift create unacceptable vulnerabilities for Europeans, but the country’s current political context indicates that this ‘America Only’ political philosophy has outlived Trump.

Whether or not the US is the world’s greatest military does not matter to Europe if it is also politically unreliable. Since it would be reckless to gamble security on such an inconstant partner, Europe has no choice but to develop its own, separate, defence capabilities and aim for strategic autonomy.

Juraj Majcin

While the recurring US complaint is that Europe’s defence spending is chronically low, Europe frequently condemns Washington for overlooking the old continent for the benefit of Asia and other emerging regions, a move best illustrated by the so-called ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy during the Obama years. To add insult to injury, Trump caused a real crisis in the transatlantic relations by refusing to acknowledge American security guarantees embodied by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, calling NATO “obsolete” and seriously considering the US withdrawal from the organisation. Both ‘Pivot to Asia’ and Trump’s disdain towards NATO have led many European leaders, political commentors and pundits to claim that the US is not reliant as a credible ally that could defend Europe against an external enemy.

Adherents of such view appear ‘more Catholic than the Pope’, as we cannot expect the US to be more credible and serious about European security than Europeans themselves. Since NATO’s founding, the US has invested enormous resources and political capital to sustain and strengthen the alliance, guiding it through tumultuous periods of the Cold War, the post-9/11 war on terror and the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. While Trump currently remains a historical exception in the long history of US support for the alliance, some European leaders have taken a rather lukewarm approach to NATO, with Charles De Gaulle’s 1963 withdrawal of France from the alliance’s military command and French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2019 description of the organisation as “brain dead” being the most striking examples.

[The] gap between western and eastern EU members on […] the Russian threat is one of the greatest impediments of common European defence policy

The war in Ukraine has also shown that the US takes European security seriously and sometimes even more seriously than some of NATO’s western European allies. It is worth noting that the American military support for Ukraine massively overshadows the contributions by all European allies combined. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has made crystal clear that Article 5 applies should Russia attack NATO’s eastern flank members, warning Putin in his Warsaw speech to not “even think about moving on one single inch of NATO territory.” Neither Macron nor German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as the most powerful political players in Europe, have addressed NATO’s eastern members with similar reassuring statements.

By such posturing, Macron and Scholz have issued a signal to the Estonians, Poles and Slovaks that they are prepared to compromise on their security in exchange for good relations with Moscow. The fact that Macron outlined his plans for building a “new security architecture” in Europe at the same time as Putin was amassing his troops along the Ukrainian border surely did not increase central and eastern European support for European strategic autonomy. While Scholz vehemently refuses to send modern battle tanks to Ukraine, the Biden administration provided the country with generous military support and has decided to build a permanent army base in Poland.

This paradigmatical gap between western and eastern EU members on the seriousness of the Russian threat is one of the greatest impediments of common European defence policy. This was acknowledged by von der Leyen in her State of the Union address when she stated that the European Commission “should have listened to the voices inside our Union – in Poland, in the Baltics, and all across Central and Eastern Europe. They have been telling us for years that Putin would not stop. And they acted accordingly.” Not only did they act accordingly but often with greater political and military support from the US than their EU counterparts. To paraphrase Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz: without reversing this trend, the European security would be too important to be left to the Europeans alone.

While views on European strategic autonomy differ, they also interestingly lead to converging recommendations for Europe as a whole and for the individual countries that constitute it.

First, Europe needs to acknowledge that the US political context and its volatility create vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the current European defence apparatus, which overly relies and depends on the American dimension of NATO. Positively, this realisation has been slowly observed among European leaders, although in contrasted and at times unconstructive ways, such as when Macron qualified NATO as a “brain dead” alliance and unsuccessfully tried to push forward the project of a European army.

Second, Europe must reinforce the European component of NATO, primarily through EU structures. Strengthening the already-launched EDF, PESCO and CARD initiatives and backing the recently revealed European Sovereignty Fund are a must, given their potential to boost Europe’s armament industry and make the continent able to provide for itself.

This should not, however, mean that Europe should stop cooperating with the US when partnering opportunities that benefit both sides of the Atlantic exist and do not create vulnerabilities. For instance, European defence protagonists should absolutely work closely with their American counterparts in developing – and buying – the most technologically-advanced systems and weapons. Making sure both sides of the alliance are equipped with the most cutting-edge gear is an advantage for all.

Europe does not need to reach autonomy outside NATO to ensure security on the continent

Finally, Europe needs to understand European security as going beyond the European continent and join forces with the US in combatting threats originating from other regions around the globe. Indeed, while Russian missiles are evidently a clear threat to Europe, Chinese disinformation campaigns also represent a substantial, although more insidious, menace to European security and stability, as do many other subtle threats originating from many other countries.

This would entail a stronger and more assumed role for Europe in the fight against authoritarianism worldwide, with an eye on Russia but also China and other authoritarian regimes. This implies a political turn in Europe’s ambitions in the defence realm, which all Europeans should seek to bolster – regardless of their stance on European strategic autonomy.

Europe must ensure its ability to autonomously defend its own continent but also beyond it in areas that host new forms of threats, mainly in the Asia Pacific. In other words, Europe does not need to reach autonomy outside NATO to ensure security on the continent. Europe must become autonomous with NATO and beyond to be able to defend its security interests on its own borders, as well as in the Asia Pacific, with US support. Not only will this guarantee better security for the old continent than solely focusing on the European territory but supporting the US in the Asia Pacific might also solve the highlighted political dilemma by encouraging them to support Europeans more consistently in Europe.

This article highlights key themes that will be discussed at our annual State of Europe event, entitled Making sense of transitions in an age of crises: a new social contract for a new era, on 27 October 2022.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and ‘ot of Friends of Europe.

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