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Europe’s road to strategic autonomy: Summarising the concrete steps taken

03 June 2020

Defining ‘strategic autonomy’

The 2016 European Union Global Strategy introduced various terms, such as ‘principled pragmatism’, and ‘integrated approach’. Perhaps the most prominent concept is ‘strategic autonomy’, yet the term was not officially defined anywhere in the 56-page document. Building on the works of various researchers such as Gergely Varga (2017), Sven Biscop (2017; 2019) and Frédéric Mauro (2018), we can come up with a definition for the concept. Strategic autonomy can be defined as the capacity for the European Union to ensure its security – in land, air, sea, space and cyberspace – to project power in and outside of its borders, and for its political action to be free and independent from any external authority.

Choosing to understand the concept only in military terms is not an option. Nevertheless, military capacity goes a long way into the political realm. Indeed, being able to defend its people against any external aggression and being able to conduct its crisis management operations means that the EU can choose its battles instead of having to follow the lead of another global power. The term autonomy is by definition relational: the European Union and its Member States need to be autonomous vis-à-vis other great powers.

What strategic autonomy should also entail is that, when faced with a dilemma or crisis, the Union should first turn to its members before seeking help or advice from any other power. However, as the EU is not yet ready for such a step, this has been translated into the now popular phrase to describe strategic autonomy à l’européenne: “act alone when necessary and with partners whenever possible” (European External Action Service, 2018).

What the EU needs to achieve strategic autonomy

First, and after nearly three decades of debate on the subject, Europeans need to define what sort of a defence union they want to form. Europeans need “a common understanding of [their] common interests” (Coelmont, 2019) and a shared narrative (Biscop, 2019). If Europeans do not know precisely what strategic autonomy means and implies, no Member State will be willing to undertake more than symbolic steps to achieve it. The first step towards a common identity was undertaken with the EU Global Strategy in 2016. However, there is still too much room for interpretation in the text – the document is richer in general statements of intent than it is in concrete commitments.

Secondly, Europeans need to carry out three components of strategic autonomy, as laid out by Frédéric Mauro (2018). The first is a political component which means that Europeans need to adopt common budgetary lines in defence matters as suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 and clarify their relations with NATO. Secondly, the necessary reforms have an operational component which can be translated into the acronym DOTMLPF: common Doctrine, Organisation, Training, Materiel, Leadership and education, Personnel, and Facilities. These should be a coherent set, as the lot can only be as strong as its weakest link. Finally, strategic autonomy has an industrial component, meaning that once military equipment has been harmonised, the EU should have the capacity to design, produce, operate, deploy, support, modify and export it.

Finally, strategic autonomy will only work by defining a clear military level of ambition in European strategy. Indeed, while the political level of ambition is clearly outlined in the EUGS (2016), no mention is made of what Europeans need to do to attain it.

Concrete steps undertaken by the Union to achieve strategic autonomy

The European Union has already undertaken various concrete steps towards strategic autonomy by creating entities that will work toward achieving this objective.

First, the Capability Development Plan (CDP), where Member States identify priorities in their national defence planning and streamline the objectives into a set that all can agree on while maintaining consistency with NATO’s objectives (EEAS, 2020).  The overall aim of the CDP is to enhance cooperation and coherence in Member States’ plans and to define common European priorities in capability development (European Defence Agency, 2020a). To streamline European countries’ objectives in this field, the CDP informs the other instruments described below: the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) (EEAS, 2020). As presented above, developing common objectives enhances the Member States’ capacity to act autonomously and as one entity.

CARD is another of the EU’s major defence achievements. This mechanism was created to centralise analysis on the implementation of defence plans at the national level. The European Defence Agency (EDA) gathers all the latest and the most detailed information Member States can provide on the results of their implementation of the CDP to launch the CARD process, which is composed of four steps. First, the EDA analyses all relevant data it has gathered and all material provided – voluntarily – by the Member States. Second, the EDA engages in a bilateral dialogue with each individual participating Member State to validate and potentially consolidate the information. Third, the EDA produces a “CARD Analysis” which “presents aggregate data and [identifies] trends regarding defence spending plans, implementation of priorities”, and cooperation opportunities. Finally, a definitive CARD report drafted by the EDA presents the main findings and recommendations (EDA, 2020b).  Such a document will allow Member States to streamline their objectives to identify cooperation opportunities in capability development. 

Source: EDA, Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD)

PESCO is a legally binding framework based on Article 46 of the Lisbon Treaty. In Biscop’s (2017) words, it “formulate[s] the level of ambition for the strategic autonomy of a group of European States” who are “capable and willing to do so” (EEAS, 2019a). The PESCO framework now consists of a list of 47 projects to which 25 European states participate; out of EU Member States, only Denmark and Malta do not participate. The aim is to “jointly develop defence capabilities and increase their readiness and availability for EU military missions and operations” (EEAS, 2020). PESCO is designed to be led by a core group of states – in which France and Germany particularly need to have a prominent role – who will take bold and concrete steps to move European defence forward, working in a “he who loves me follows me” way. The aim is for the core groups to lead others into harmonising their capability development plans and to eventually reach a point where all European states act in the same direction.

Finally, the EDF will foster innovation and competitiveness in the European defence market by providing the necessary funding for Research & Development (R&D) and by co-financing approved development projects with a contribution of up to 20% (EC, 2019 & EEAS, 2019b). For research, the level of EDF funding can be up to 100% (EC, 2019). The collaborative aspect of the R&D strand of the EDF combined with the co-financing offered by the capability strand lessens the financial burden that defence and capability development bears on European countries. By alleviating some unnecessary and duplicated costs across the European continent, the EDF initiative contributes significantly to the European journey to strategic autonomy. Through the initiative, the EU will eventually be able to build an autonomous and self-sufficient defence market by developing its capabilities while supporting European industries. Thanks to the savings made through pooling and sharing capacities, European actors can also better afford critical technology for which they still rely on increasingly isolationist non-European powers. By developing its autonomous defence market, the EU therefore significantly expands its ability to “act alone when necessary”, in the spirit of strategic autonomy.


The overall objective of strategic autonomy in defence and its associated instruments in the EU is eventually to reorganise, harmonise and ‘pool and share’ European capabilities to avoid duplication. Pooling and sharing means not only collaboration but rather integration. Instead of merely cooperating in the field of defence, Europeans are creating one entity, one pool of capacities, that will be available to all (EEAS, 2018a).

The overarching result should be an enhanced efficacy of European defence, so that Europe can attain the same level of cost-efficiency as its key partners, such as the United States. Hindrances to a unified European defence structure still exist, including different preferences concerning the “EU-NATO” relationship, and the perception that defence integration goes against the grain of a sacrosanct principle of national sovereignty. Nonetheless, the objective of strategic autonomy and being an influential power on the world stage can only succeed if European defence integration keeps moving forward.

Written by Camille De Sutter, Defence Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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