Stephen Booth: The Ukraine war has revived American leadership and dashed dreams of European autonomy

7 Apr

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

In the 1990s, Mark Eyskens, then Belgium’s foreign minister, described the EU as an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. This depiction has since been invoked in dozens of articles and speeches about EU foreign and security policy.

The unprecedented speed and scale of the EU’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine therefore displayed a surprising degree of unity and capacity to act, from what was admittedly a rather low base. The EU agreed to provide Ukraine with €450 million worth of weapons, and joined the US and the UK in imposing significant economic sanctions on the Russian financial system. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, described it as the EU’s “geopolitical awakening”.

Maintaining a unified EU response will be increasingly difficult as the crisis goes on and tougher decisions are called for. For example, this week, the EU agreed sanctions on Russian coal and shipping but was unable to extend this to oil, amid resistance from large energy importers such as Germany.

And while some in Brussels might hail the response as giving fresh impetus to the concepts of “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy”, in many ways the crisis has only underlined and intensified the EU’s reliance on the US and NATO.

The first references to the concept of EU “strategic autonomy” date back nearly a decadem but Emmanuel Macron has sought to put the idea at the heart of French and European foreign policy since assuming office. He first drew on this theme early in his presidency in a 2017 speech at the Sorbonne as a response to what he described as “gradual and inevitable disengagement by the United States”.

While pitched as a “complement” to NATO and the transatlantic alliance, Macron was clear that the concept meant equipping the EU with the tools to take decisions and action independently based on its own interests, from foreign and security policy to energy and technology. In 2019, Macron described the “brain death” of NATO.

The EU institutions in Brussels were keen to run with the theme. In 2019, the incoming Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, promised a “geopolitical Commission”. This promise was made in response to the decline in multilateralism and growing great power rivalry between the US and China. Brexit, and the loss of one of the EU’s two major foreign policy and security players, no doubt also acted as a catalyst for the renewed emphasis on developing the EU’s geopolitical role.

However, the EU has struggled to define what strategic autonomy means in practice. Economically, the French desire to create European champions clashes with the instincts of more liberal member states. Clément Beaune, France’s EU minister, said last month that the war should push the EU “to reduce our interdependence with the outside world, to create not an autocracy but a form of European independence.” Mark Rutte, Holland’s Prime Minister, has stressed the need for “open strategic autonomy”.

On security, there has been a renewed focus on increasing investment in defence capabilities, which has been accelerated by the Ukraine crisis, particularly dramatically in Germany. However, there had remained an unresolved tension between those states for whom strategic autonomy is a means of regaining political independence from Washington, and others for whom it should be avoided precisely for fear of accelerating US disengagement. The Ukraine crisis has strengthened the hand of those in the latter camp, including the Eastern and Nordic states.

Observers have noted that, on assuming the EU’s rotating presidency at the start of this year, Macron dropped the term “strategic autonomy” in favour of “European sovereignty”, precisely because the term autonomy risked becoming divisive.

The EU recently published its Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, which was supposed to be the centrepiece of the French EU presidency and a landmark signpost towards a more geopolitical EU. Based on the “first-ever comprehensive EU threat analysis”, conducted in 2020, it has been rather overtaken by events.

The Compass has been hastily updated to reflect the Ukraine war, but the major threat analysis was conducted before the Russian invasion changed the geopolitical landscape, and that threat analysis also did not anticipate the risk of Russian military action. Notably, US and UK intelligence warnings of an imminent Russian attack proved to be correct, whereas French and German agencies appeared unconvinced, leading to the departure of the head of French military intelligence.

One of the key proposals of the Strategic Compass is the development of an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity of up to 5,000 troops for different types of crises. However, the Ukraine crisis has only underlined that, for hard power, NATO is the only game in town. In the words of NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “so all these efforts – as long as they complement NATO – we welcome them, but the EU cannot defend Europe.”

The crisis has amplified the voices of the more Atlanticist member states, particularly in Eastern Europe. Estonia has called for a larger permanent presence of NATO forces on the eastern flank to act as a stronger deterrent. Romania has also called for more troops and has pledged to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, Poland has quietly lowered the temperature in its legal disputes with Brussels, giving it the opportunity to rekindle ties with the Biden Administration and urge the EU to do more on sanctions and support for Ukraine.

The US is also poised to play a significant role in the EU’s transition away from dependence on Russian energy. The US and the EU recently reached a deal to secure greater shipments of US liquified natural gas up to 2030 to help reduce energy dependence on Russian gas in the coming years. Von der Leyen noted that the target to import 50 billion cubic metres per year “is replacing one-third already of the Russian gas going to Europe today.”

If the horrors of the crisis in Ukraine have finally revealed the dangers and consequences of strategic ambiguity towards Putin’s Russia, European policies (in the EU and in the UK) towards China are also likely to come under increased scrutiny. During the recent EU-China summit, Xi Jinping reportedly called on the EU “to pursue an independent policy towards China,” in a thinly veiled warning to Brussels not to coordinate too closely with the US. But if China continues to support Russia, currently Europe’s gravest security threat, then greater proximity to Washington is the only likely answer.

This crisis has demonstrated the enduring power of the US. If this gives fresh momentum to Atlanticism within the EU and a greater focus on improving capabilities rather than stressing autonomy, this would be good for the West. It would also provide a more productive atmosphere for UK-EU cooperation on shared threats and challenges.