Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

tel. +38 (044) 287 52 58

Will the European Union’s aspiration for “strategic autonomy” ensure Europe’s security?

The geopolitical transformations taking place in recent years are changing the state of affairs in international relations. As the early months of Joe Biden's presidency showed, it will not be easy for the United States to rebuild the system of alliances that was hit by Donald Trump's isolationist policy. Despite all the declarations of intent to restore Transatlantic unity and the first strategic documents recently published by the White House, the European Union is still considering the concept of a «strategic autonomy». Therefore, it is worthwhile to figure out what this concept includes and what is the probability of its implementation and what does this mean for Ukraine?

«Strategic autonomy» covers various spheres of activity of the European Union, however, first of all, the initiative relates to the security component of the US-European cooperation. In particular, the analytical report of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), which was published in early February, emphasizes the need to achieve greater independence from the United States. The document notes that Europe can be sovereign only if it has the ability to independently ensure its own security. In addition, the need to establish parity within NATO is emphasized, because unilateral dependence, even among friends, comes at a price. According to the author report, the new European security system should rely on a nuclear arsenal, namely the French one, while the French president maintains exclusive decision-making authority. It should be noted that such ideas are not new. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his work «The Grand Chessboard», described in detail the «French» vision of Europe, according to which France, with the support of Germany, would create the «core of Europe», gradually reducing the influence of the United States. In modern conditions, when the German vision approaches the French one, such a scenario becomes more feasible.

In the context of the transformation of European-American relations in the framework of NATO, Ukraine finds itself in a rather difficult position. Legislatively, Ukraine's goal is to secure the Euro-Atlantic integration course, and further joining NATO and the EU. The Ukrainian strategy is based on the idea of joining a unified defense, security and political system of the West, where the United States of America and the member states of the European Union coordinate their policies based on common values and interests. However, in case of creating an autonomous security structure within the European Union, a certain dissonance arises between the European and Atlantic security partnerships.

Modern Europe, trying not to fall into a geopolitical vacuum, is in the process of defining its place and role in the new structure of the international system, in which the United States of America and the PRC are the main actors. At the same time, Russia, lacking such economic and institutional capabilities as the United States and China’s, still remains a military power with the first nuclear arsenal in the world and one of the main factors of European politics. While the US policy towards the PRC and the Russian Federation was clearly outlined and is based on the principles of containment and counteraction, the member states of the European Union, being in this geopolitical triangle, in the absence of unity on fundamental issues, perceive the external players differently. In particular, Germany's reluctance to listen to arguments about the colossal damage of Nord Stream 2 for a number of European countries is indicative.

The EU attempts to maintain partnership relations with the Russian Federation, despite the aggressive policy of Russia around its borders and in the Mediterranean, this time faced reality, after the humiliation of EU High Representative Josep Borrel in Moscow. The High Representative wrote an article after his visit, outlining his impressions of the meeting with the Russian side and noted: «Europe and Russia are drifting apart. It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat». He also added: «If we want a safer world for tomorrow, we have to act decidedly today and be ready to take some risks». The strategic revision of relations with Russia, which was announced by Borrel, was supposed to take place on March 25-26 at the EU summit, but since this issue cannot be resolved online, it was postponed until the summer.

EU relations with China are also gradually changing, as can be seen in the example of the 17 + 1 initiative. In addition to China, this format includes 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Greece also joined the format in 2019. China is positioning it as an international platform for improving cooperation and creating interconnected economic and logistic projects. The CEE countries, in turn, viewed 17 + 1 as an opportunity to attract Chinese investments in their economies, improve their own transport and energy infrastructure, as well as exchange technologies. However, Brussels is now beginning to realize that this format is being used by Beijing rather as an instrument of geopolitical influence, which is already creating certain risks. An illustrative case - the vote in 2016 in the EU Council on the condemnation of Chinese violations of international law in the South China Sea, which was blocked by Hungary, Greece, Croatia and Slovenia. Likewise, CEE countries differ in their position on statements condemning human rights violations in China. However, as noted, European countries are gradually changing their attitude towards relations with the PRC. Especially, this is influenced by the US-China confrontation. As a result of the last 17 + 1 summit, it became evident that the leaderships of the countries of the region became increasingly critical of China and its domestic and foreign policies.[1] Especially this refers to the Baltic countries and Poland, which see a threat from the Russian Federation, a geopolitical ally of the PRC.

The mistrust that arose between democracies during the Trump administration has prompted the European Union to shape its own strategic vision. The idea of «Strategic Autonomy» is just one of the possible options for further positioning of the European Union, which does not have unanimous support in European capitals. Of course, Joe Biden will work to restore transatlantic unity, as evidenced by the strategic documents recently adopted by the United States, such as the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance and a number of proposed initiatives, including the alternative «One Belt One Road for Democratic states». Ukraine, in turn, regardless of external circumstances, should continue to reform and deepen relations with European countries and the United States, while European integration should be used as a tool to modernize the state, and not be an end in itself. In the context of regionalization and uncertainty of the future role of the European Union in the global system of international relations, a continued interaction and policy coordination at the bilateral level, as well as in multilateral formats with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the United States, can be considered as an adequate actions for Ukraine.