Written by Mariona Campmajó


The notion of Europe as an independent actor, establishing its security and defence policy, represents a long process in creating the European Union. Strategic autonomy has emerged in practice and has gained political and policy salience as a response to the EU’s internal development and shifts in the international system (Tocci, 2021). Strategic autonomy can be defined as “the institutional capacity to plan and conduct military operations independently […] and to autonomously develop and produce the related defence capabilities with minimal or no assistance [from others]” (Meijer & Brooks, 2021, p.8). Regardless, the European Union has not been consolidated as strategically autonomous. The interplay of historical events and different interests between Member States has hindered the process of building a resilient and independent EU defence policy.

The aftermath of WWII called for strengthening unity in Western Europe and creating structures to bring peace and safety. Nonetheless, the establishment of NATO in 1949 hindered the potential for the development of a “security and defence policy” for Western Europe. Consequently, a project in this area had no real chance of developing and being fully implemented (Wojnicz, 2013). NATO set up a framework for collective defence, which many European countries joined, including those that would later found the European Coal and Steel Community, the EU’s precursor. Therefore, it left the idea of a separate EU defence policy less urgent at the time.

In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty aimed to develop an EU foreign policy, including an eventual framework for a common defence policy to reinforce the European identity. The EU would move away from its normative and civilian power status and exist as a foreign policy actor (Tardy, 2018), establishing a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The Treaty of Lisbon described the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as an integral part of the CFSP. The CSDP would set the framework for cooperation in the field of defence and security, designed to enhance the EU’s ability to respond to crises and strengthen its role globally. All this would be done within a consistent framework with NATO.

In 2016, the Council of the EU designed an Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, providing a loose definition of strategic autonomy as “the ability to act and cooperate with international and regional partners wherever possible while operating autonomously when and where necessary”. Moreover, in 2022, the Council approved the Strategic Compass, a policy document laying down the EU’s security and defence strategy for the next five to ten years. The initiative was criticised for not providing clear answers regarding strategic autonomy (Koenig, 2022) and not giving a sense of orientation to the EU’s defence policy (Santopinto, 2022).

Hereafter, a debate surrounding European defence still endures. The divergence of strategic national interests and the dependence on NATO hinder the further development of the EU’s strategic autonomy. As Europe faces a complex and uncertain security environment, and with the war in Ukraine underlining the EU’s reliance on the US, there has been a growing demand for the EU to become more capable, coherent, and strategic (EEAS, 2021). However, to what extent is strategic autonomy feasible?

Different preferences

The European Defence Community (EDC) in 1954 aimed to create a supranational European army which would include military forces from all Member States. This was the first attempt at creating a defence project in Europe, but it was unsuccessful due to internal disagreements. Because of a feared loss of national sovereignty, the French National Assembly did not ratify it, leading the project to fail. Indeed, internal divides within the EU regarding defence are not new. Intergovernmentalism and fear of losing sovereignty are some of the main arguments that have hindered the potential to put forward a concise and capable defence strategy by all EU Member States.

Within the EU, there are different interests and thus preferences regarding national defence policies. In other words, not all Member States will have the same threat perceptions, leading to discrepancies when deciding where to, for example, deploy a mission or what to invest in. Meijers and Brooks (2021) conducted a “national threat assessment” across all EU Member States to see how countries differ on what is more critical to tackle. Their research shows how a mix of history, politics, and geography have shaped these divergences. The authors use a coding method to compare Russia’s threat to the analysed countries by comprehensively examining national defence policies and government reports. The results show that Poland and the Baltic states perceived Russia as the dominant threat, whereas countries geographically further from Russia, such as Spain, Portugal or Italy, and states more sympathetic to Russia, considered that the country was not their main threat. Instead, countering terrorism or challenges related to migration flows might be perceived as more urgent by these states (Estevens, 2018). This example showcases how Europe’s strategic divides exacerbate the need for more clear direction or feasible way to develop actual capacity for the EU to be cohesive and develop rapid responses.

Additionally, the EU’s institutional arrangements do not make it easier. The CSDP needs unanimity in most areas to decide where quick interventions must be made. This creates what some call the leadership paradox (Aggestam & Johansson, 2017), where unanimity can be seen as an enemy of effectiveness but, at the same time, continues to be a principle of democracy in the EU. Ultimately, these diverse interests and the requirement for unanimity hinder the consolidation of a solid and independent defence policy.

EU’s dependence on NATO and its capability shortfalls

During the Cold War, the US perceived Europe as a strategic partner to counter-power the Soviet Union. After its collapse in 1991, the US chose to maintain NATO and its leadership of the alliance – where it still is the leading financial contributor – to keep relationships and presence on the continent. Since then, the EU and NATO have had a complex relationship, mostly related to disagreements over defence spending, coordination problems in decision-making processes, and the sometimes criticised influence of the US (Duke, 2008; Smith & Gebhard, 2017). With NATO undertaking the task of providing security and collective defence for its member countries while giving training and logistical support for military operations, the EU has fallen short in achieving strategic autonomy.

This has sometimes led to questions about whether the US should withdraw its military presence from Europe. Some Member States argue that a reduced US presence would diminish Europe’s ability to defend itself, acknowledging that the EU has defence capability shortfalls (Howorth, 2019; Meijers & Brooks, 2021). In contrast, others want Europe to take greater responsibility for its security and to develop strategic autonomy. However, could the EU be autonomous in terms of defence today? According to Meijers and Brooks (2021), there are severe military capacity gaps which cannot be closed any time soon and, most recently, the war in Ukraine has evidenced the EU’s dependence on NATO.

Europe’s defence capacity decreased after the Cold War (Barrie et al., 2018). Larger European countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom have reduced their investments from approximately 4% of GDP in 1989 (Meijer, 2021) to below 2% in 2021. Meanwhile, the United States allocated 3.4% of its GDP towards defence that same year (Trading Economics, 2022). This is understandable since foreign policy has shifted from focusing on territorial defence in the past towards being more about crisis management today. Consequently, the EU’s defence sector needs more R&D investments, procurement, and a robust industrial defence policy. Investing in research and innovation is vital to achieving strategic autonomy (Tocci, 2021). However, internal disagreements hinder the efficient allocation of resources, leading to fragmentation and duplication of procured equipment. The weak defence industry and need for specialised personnel leave the EU highly dependent on NATO if common policies and governance are not overcome (Meijers & Brooks, 2021).

Given the current challenges, it is urgent to strengthen the European defence and technological industrial base (EDTIB). The EDTIB is the collection of defence-related industries and technologies within the EU, which could be strengthened through initiatives such as the European Defence Fund (EDF) and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), improving cooperation and coordination among Member States in the areas of R&D and defence industry competitiveness. A report from the European Defence Agency shows that in 2021, there was a 41% increase compared to 2020 in defence Research and Technology spending, accounting for €3.6 billion. Nonetheless, this spending was below the agreed collective benchmarks that the EU had previously set (EDA, 2022), which again shows the lack of harmonised response to common military needs which are key to sustaining a shared defence industry.

While incomplete institutions and reforms have resulted in limitations and capability gaps, mechanisms of experiential learning such as mentorship prorgrammes and simulations have been central to identifying these shortcomings (Bergmann & Müller, 2021). Indeed, Europe has taken steps toward strategic autonomy. Through the EU Global Strategy, the Council has mentioned the need for an appropriate level of European strategic autonomy regarding the development, replacement and operation of defence capabilities and key strategic technology areas (Fiott, 2018). 


The EU’s efforts to gain strategic autonomy will be limited by two main constraints: different national interests and difficulties in overcoming defence capability shortfalls. Pragmatically, the EU cannot just wait to create a common project, as it would take too much time and resources compared to what the US can provide currently. Because of this, NATO is the “main actor” where it has a comparative advantage in security and defence. The EU could strengthen its capabilities within NATO, but this would mean addressing the challenges of decision-making among the Bloc and relying on the US, which some would say is a ‘wounded democracy’ where, for example, Trump saw the EU as an adversary (Tocci, 2021). Certainly, strategic autonomy will require resilient democracies which live up to the EU’s norms, laws, and democratic standards.

European autonomy is needed now more than ever. In a changing international order where other superpowers pose significant challenges and diverging interests to the EU, strategic autonomy is necessary to retain structural power (ibid.). In this sense, the war in Ukraine is a critical juncture. Today, Russia is perceived as a threat, and common challenges are evident where there has been a call for more unity (EEAS, 2022). Nonetheless, despite the narrative shift from some political leaders, the EU still needs a framework for a common defence policy, and the internal divergences are still too significant. Therefore, the primary step would be to present a more united and politically dynamic EU to not lag behind the rapidly-changing international scenario.

Regardless, there is much more to be done. Tackling the consensus deficit to build rapid responses to current challenges is key to guaranteeing a more capable defence policy, which should be accompanied by a stronger development of Europe’s defence industry. To ensure its pursuit of strategic autonomy in defence and security, the European Union must act now.


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