How autonomous is the European Union?

Member states in the European Union want to act more independently in international politics, an idea supported by the United States. But that’s easier said than done

(From L-R) Flags of the European Union, Germany, the US, China and RussiaDW

A collective sigh of relief rang out over Berlin and Brussels in November 2022, as the results of the US midterm elections came in: the power shift in Congress toward the Republicans was less dramatic than many had feared and former president Donald Trump took a heavy blow. Under Trump, the trans-Atlantic relationship had hit rock bottom.

But the Europeans should not rejoice too soon, believes Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin. In a guest op-ed for DW following the vote, he wrote: “Biden will go down in history as the last bleeding heart trans-Atlanticist to occupy the White House.” The time of generous security policy support will soon be over, no matter who is in the White House, if only because the US will concentrate much more on China in the future.

Strategic autonomy is on Berlin’s agenda

The US slowly turning away from Europe, China as an increasingly aggressive world power, and now Putin’s Russia, which is invading an independent European country — this is the uncomfortable new geopolitical situation Europeans find themselves in.

The war in Ukraine surprised almost everyone, but the other two developments are by no means new. In response, the term “strategic autonomy” has entered the vernacular

The war in Ukraine surprised almost everyone, but the other two developments are by no means new. In response, the term “strategic autonomy” has entered the vernacular. It means that the European Union can act independently from other global political actors militarily, politically, and economically.

The coalition agreement of Germany’s three-party government, made in 2021, states: “We want to increase the strategic sovereignty of Europe. (…) Our goal is a sovereign EU as a strong actor in a world characterised by insecurity and systemic competition.”

Germany’s ‘complacency’ criticised

But how much progress have the EU and Germany made toward this goal? The European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR, produces the European Sovereignty Index — assessing the areas of climate protection, defence, economy, health, migration, and technology.

The US is expected to focus more on China than the EU in future

According to this, the entire EU has a high degree of sovereignty in matters of economy and health, a satisfactory level in defence, climate protection, and migration, and bad marks in the field of technology. There, the EU is considered to be particularly dependent.

In June 2022, each EU member country was also assessed for its contribution to European sovereignty. Germany was ranked at the top because it is not only strong but, according to the ECFR authors, also invests in “the union’s capacity to act” and publicly displays a commitment to European sovereignty.

Germany received a big demerit point on one issue: Despite its economic power, it is only ranked fifth on the Index for its contribution to European economic sovereignty. That is “partly reflecting its complacency towards interdependencies with Russia and China.” The authors think that Germany must still learn from its past mistakes in this matter.

Not everyone in Europe shares this goal

But Europe is still far from achieving the goal of strategic autonomy, believes Henning Hoff from the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. “In terms of defence and security policy, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has shown that the Europeans are dependent on the United States.”

Europeans are divided on the question of military autonomy. According to the Baltic states and Poland, the US and NATO should retain a strong role in Europe

That applies to the nuclear threat as well as conventional warfare. “There is no question: If Ukraine only had Europe to rely on, it would not exist today.”

It is primarily French president Emmanuel Macron who advocates for European military independence. Since Brexit, France is the only EU country with nuclear weapons.

Europeans are divided on the question of military autonomy. According to the Baltic states and Poland, the US and NATO should retain a strong role in Europe.

Meanwhile, Mihai Chihaia from the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, believes the various interests can be brought together. The US supports the EU’s efforts for more independence. “A more capable EU will contribute to trans-Atlantic security and complement NATO,” he told DW.

China’s interest in European ports

The goal of strategic autonomy is not just about security and defence. It also includes trade and industry policy, finance, and investment. The Europeans have long upheld multilateralism and free trade, especially against Trump.

Germany has pledged to boost its defense capacity and take on a leading military role in Europe

Meanwhile, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, acknowledges that “economic interdependence is becoming very prone to political conflict”: supply chains were interrupted in the pandemic; China deliberately creates dependencies, Russia could turn off the gas tap at will.

One of the areas listed in the Berlin coalition agreement of late 2021 as particularly worthy of protection is the energy supply. The war in Ukraine has made Germany’s level of dependence in this area abundantly clear.

And today? Has Germany learned its lesson? Critics accuse Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for example, of having unnecessarily allowed the partial takeover of a Hamburg port terminal by Chinese shipping giant Cosco, thereby starting another form of dependency. “It is exactly in this situation that a Europe-wide answer would have been better — say for example a ‘European ports action group’ which would ensure that Chinese state-owned enterprises do not play one port off against another or blackmail them,” political scientist Henning Hoff said.

On the other hand, shortly after the port deal, the German government twice turned down Chinese investors who wanted to buy German electronics companies.

German-French friendship

Good relations between Germany and France, the EU’s two biggest countries, were traditionally seen as central to the bloc. But now relations seem to have soured and in many areas, projects are on hold — ranging from the joint FCAS fighter aircraft project to other issues where sometimes one side feels left out, sometimes the other.

Henning Hoff criticises the German government for ignoring “the fact that its own, national actions have European consequences and should always be coordinated with France. Scholz has “not yet found his role on the European stage. If the many dissonances in Franco-German relations are not reduced soon, European autonomy will be.