Is 'Strategic Autonomy' the Future of Europe? | Opinion

When it comes to our European allies, Donald Trump's policy the last four years was drastic, if somewhat peripheral to other goals: ending Europe's freeloading off U.S. defense. The effort seems to have been largely successful—for now. Think what you will of his rhetoric and its effect on transatlantic goodwill, but the president's overarching objective looks more attainable now than ever.

European leaders reacted to Trump by opening a discussion about the possibility of Europe's "strategic autonomy." Adjusted for feasibility, Europe seems more willing than ever to bear the burden of its own security, yet its intention in doing so is not to strengthen NATO—much less to compensate America—but to pursue a more self-interested realism. For all the proclamations of a transatlantic "reset" from both Joe Biden and the EU, the real game-changer in the wake of Trump is Europe's evolving definition of its own interests, in which America is bound to play a lesser role.

The meaning of European "strategic autonomy," however, remains astoundingly unclear thanks to divisions within the EU—in particular, the opposing geostrategic persuasions of France and Germany. The buzzphrase is Emmanuel Macron's brainchild, and in some ways it extends France's post-World War II souverainism to a European scope. But the French president's Euro-Gaullism need not worry Americans in the way that Charles de Gaulle's aversion towards U.S. influence in Europe did in the 1950s and 1960s. That this debate sprang from Trump's shock win in 2016 but has only accelerated since last month's election is no coincidence. Satisfying the key U.S. demand of enhanced military preparedness is one pillar of Macron's vision, but it is also informed by a willingness to face China's menacing rise. Other U.S.-compatible outcomes would be an increased European willingness to patrol its own North African and Eastern Mediterranean neighborhoods, as exhibited this summer with a high-stakes French-Turkish spat over Greece's territorial waters.

But beyond a nominal agreement to speed up the timid military spending surge of the past four years, France finds itself at odds with Germany over Europe's strategic future. The channels through which Europe's beefed-up defense budgets will flow remain as contentious as ever. France is a cheerleader of EU-wide defense cooperation—championing the PESCO and EDF defense programs—to spur economies of scale, knowledge-sharing and avoiding redundancies. These initiatives have caused friction with American priorities, however. France has accused America of hypocrisy for insisting on higher aggregate spending whilst rebuking PESCO and EDF for leaving U.S. contractors out of EU bids. On this score, Biden is likely to find an ally in Germany, where officials have labeled "strategic autonomy" as "protectionist"—nothing short of an insult in EU-speak.

In the issues of industrial policy, telecoms and trade, "strategic autonomy" is divisive inside the EU and bound to concern Americans. A former German diplomat recently used the calumnious term "autarchy" in reference to Macron's plan, casting it as a costly pipe dream that would place Europe at the forefront of de-globalization. Perhaps this laissez-faire critique concerns Macron's talk of onshoring pharmaceutical supply chains in the wake of COVID-19. German drug-makers resent being cut off from cheap Asian suppliers and, zealous of accessing Chinese markets, the country's corporate interests at large are notorious Beijing appeasers.

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks during the Climate Ambition Summit 2020 video conference meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on December 12 2020 as this year marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement adopted by 196 countries on December 12, 2015. Yoan VALAT / POOL / AFP/Getty

Macron has targeted EU pieties in competition policy too, favoring beefed-up subsidies for European industries to better compete globally. About this other form of market-rigging you won't hear much dissent from Germany, whose national industrial champions are, along with France's, already a favorite of EU state aid at the expense of smaller nations—a qualm voiced recently by former Italian PM Enrico Letta. And this is not to mention areas where America objects to EU protectionism disguised as "strategic autonomy." The EU's plans to turn its single trade policy into an environmental tool through so-called border-adjusted carbon taxes is no U.S. administration's cup of tea, not even Biden's. Other issues, like taxation of offshore U.S. profits and digital policy—which disproportionately affects American tech companies through antitrust fines and privacy rules—have largely been omitted from official pronouncements, but to assume EU plans won't collide at some point with American interests would be naïve.

This all is symptomatic of a larger dissonance, with each side of the French-German tandem of EU power picking fights with strawmen and framing the face-off in a way that advances its own case. Macron's camp has used "European sovereignty" interchangeably with "autonomy," implying that the other side would gladly make the EU an American protectorate, or worse, the geopolitical plaything of the next hegemon. To further blur the lines, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the German defense minister leading the skeptic camp, has labeled her plea as "atlanticist"—mind you, claiming a monopoly on EU-U.S. dialogue is a popular pastime among German politicians. This allows her to claim for her side a range of Baltic and Central European nations who welcome the label, but as NATO poster children resent Germany's chronic under-spending on defense.

Understood charitably, "strategic autonomy" is about making the EU willing and able to wield power commensurate with its market size, geostrategic potential and willingness to advance ideals and interests of its own. But if "strategic autonomy" for Europe sounds like a doctrinal shell that one could fill with any number of ulterior purposes, it's because that's exactly what it is. Macron's grand strategy is thus largely concerned with means—"autonomous to do what?" is the as-yet unanswered question on everyone's minds—and the case for sacrificing EU market orthodoxies and transatlantic goodwill on the altar of strategic muscle has little buy-in beyond French diplomatic and think-tank circles. Meanwhile, Germany's non-negotiable starting point—that no strategic interests are worth pursuing outside the transatlantic mold—ducks the hard question of what Europe should sacrifice to become a better asset to NATO. By scapegoating Gallic souverainism as the only hazard for EU-U.S. amity, the German stance papers over the obvious sore spot: defense underspending, primarily Germany's own.

That Europe may, sooner or later, rouse from its strategic lethargy is unambiguously good news for America, the transatlantic alliance and Europeans themselves. But absent widespread agreement on what exactly "strategic autonomy" would entail, and the kind of partnership with America the EU wants for the future, the ongoing frenzy around the idea will amount to little more than intellectual crossfire.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.