Expert Insights: European Strategic Autonomy in Defence

What does European strategic autonomy in defence mean for the EU, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and EU-US relations? In this Expert Insights podcast, Lucia Retter, Stephanie Pezard, and Stephen Flanagan discuss the path towards greater EU defence integration and factors that affect how this autonomy develops going forward.


Catherine McShane

Hello, good day. Welcome to RAND Europe's Expert Insights podcast, in which we discuss our latest research and look more in-depth at some of the pressing policy issues of the day. I'm Cat McShane from RAND Europe, and in this session we're talking about a recent study called European Strategic Autonomy in Defence, and it seeks to explore the fundamental question of what does European strategic autonomy in defence mean for the EU, NATO, and EU and U.S. relations? So the study was delivered jointly by RAND Europe and RAND Corporation researchers in the United States, and it was explicitly designed to capture transatlantic perspectives on the issues surrounding European strategic autonomy. So discussing the report today, are three of its authors Lucia Retter, Stephanie Pezard and Steve Flanagan. Welcome to you all.

If I can put this to you first, Lucia, can you start by providing some background on the study and why the topic is so important? And sort of what is European strategic autonomy and defence or what that means? And perhaps, Stephanie, you can follow up by explaining a bit why combining the European and American perspectives in one study was such a core part of the work.

Lucia Retter

Sure. Thanks, Cat. So we've seen in the sort of last five or six years a real increase in public discussion in both European and also international policy circles on what European strategic autonomy means. The term itself has gone through a lot of expansion beyond just the sort of traditional defence and security matters to include a broader set of issues, for example, the economy, health, technology, supply chains, and so on. However, the core foundations of the term strategic autonomy and the ones we focus on in our study are very much firmly rooted in defence.

European institutions, as well as many EU member states themselves, recognize that Europe needs to weigh in more to contribute to NATO and also to tackle global security and defence risks and challenges. And this has been very much a focus of successive U.S. administrations as well, who have reminded Europe that they do need to weigh in more in terms of tackling global security and defence challenges and also domestic defence challenges, as well. As we're seeing the global security environment worsening and also different countries and groups looking to articulate their own visions of strategic ambitions, we are also seeing calls for achieving greater European strategic autonomy, both in EU policy circles and beyond.

Stephanie Pezard

And against this really dynamic background that Lucia just described, our RAND team saw that there was really little analysis that had been done on the implications of European strategic autonomy for the EU, NATO, and U.S. relations, and hardly anything had been done from a transatlantic perspective that tried to account for the diversity of views in Europe and in the U.S. about this specific topic. So we build our entire research in a way that would allow us to capture views from both sides of the Atlantic. To do that, we've been using a structured methodology that designed three possible future visions of what European strategic autonomy might look like. And to do that, we drew on consultations with European and U.S. experts. And we then use these three scenarios in interviews with senior government and policy officials in the U.S. and in the EU in order to try to capture their perspectives on what these different scenarios might mean, not just for the relationship between the EU and NATO, but also between the EU and the U.S. So between January and March this year, we consulted 27 senior experts among different places: U.S. government departments, the European Commission, the European Defence Agency, the European External Action Service, and NATO.

And we try in our U.S.-European research team to embody this diversity with that sort of dual U.S.-European perspective that enabled us all to look at the other questions surrounding European strategic autonomy in what we hope is a more holistic way, taking into account not just the strategic and military aspects of European strategic autonomy, but also the political factors that really shape its development.

Cat McShane

Thank you, Stephanie. What can you guys tell me about sort of the main findings in the report? Lucia, perhaps we can start with you again?

Lucia Retter

Sure, very happy to do it. I guess the first thing to highlight is that our study and our work really confirms that there is insufficient clarity linked to the term "European strategic autonomy," something that's been noted by a number of officials and analysts on both sides of the Atlantic and a number of the interviewees we spoke with as part of the study. And while we have seen quite a lot of constructive work being done by academics, analysts and the EU itself to better articulate what European strategic autonomy is and what it is not. It still is and remains a term that brings in confusion and somewhat contentious views on both sides of the Atlantic. Overall, we found that our European interviewees were positive in relation to the underpinning building blocks of European strategic autonomy in defence, particularly things like the importance of aggregate military strength of the different EU member states, also national and EU defence spending, the importance of interoperability commonalities in strategic culture and so on. And they recognize that there are merits to having a stronger and more capable Europe. We found that several of our U.S. interviewees were particularly concerned that European defence integration efforts have often been distracted by focusing on building up structures or initiatives and programs, rather than taking responsibility for addressing specific challenges in security and defence. And perhaps they see that the weight of strategic autonomy initiatives should really come together with committed resources and also action allocated to these structures, initiatives and programs.

Stephanie Pezard

And another important finding that we came up with is most of our interviewees really identified a stronger Europe as a benefit to both NATO and the U.S., and almost regardless of the ways in which defence integration took place. So it could be through EU-level structures and tools such as a European defence firm through PESCO or through bilateral or meteorological programs such as NORDEFCO or any combination of the above. Most of our interviewees we share the view that a more capable Europe is good for NATO and good for the transatlantic partnership. On the flip side, and consistently, they also found that less engaged and less capable and less coherent European pillar of NATO is unlikely to be capable of meaningful burden sharing. And from a U.S. national perspective, it's also harder to justify investment in European defence matters. If you have to explain that to the U.S. public, if European nations choose not to invest themselves in strengthening their contribution to NATO. One additional finding related to the previous one is that again, our interviews really showed that what really matters is the complementarity between European security and NATO that the way it was articulated in the Joint Declaration of 2016 and 2018, even though there is also a recognition that achieving this complementarity in practice has proved difficult so far. But there was really no appetite among either U.S. or European interviewees for an outcome of a Europe that goes its own way, which was one of the three scenarios we looked at. Both a strong, strong EU defence and a strong NATO are seen as needed and in an ideal vision of Europe in the future would be would be complementary.

And the fact remains that the U.S. via NATO remains really critical for the provision of European defence and security due to its clear commitment to territorial defence, provision of nuclear deterrence, command and control structure; and as we've seen in previous operation, many of NATO's limiting assets and capabilities.

Stephen J. Flanagan

Well, and finally, our study confirms that European defence integration and the realization of strategic autonomy in defence is not only shaped by the internal efforts of the European Union, but very much influenced by the policy stance of the United States and a number of other key influences from outside the European Union. While there's been a sense of relief within the EU following the election of President Biden and his expressed desire to reestablish close cooperation with European allies and partners, there's also a strong sense, especially among our European interviewees, that the EU needs to hedge against a potential second Trump or Trumplike administration in the near future. As for other NATO players, most notably Turkey and the UK, they will also continue to have a significant influence on the shape of European strategic autonomy and especially the practical ability of the EU to complement NATO. These are in addition to the challengers external to NATO, notably Russia and China, whose policies and actions not only in defence and security but also in trade, energy and many other activities will inevitably shape the relationship between the trio of actors here: the EU, the U.S. and NATO, as well as strategic autonomy.

Cat McShane

Thanks for highlighting the breadth of different findings that was involved in that study. I'm aware that this was an internally-funded RAND research project, so I wondered what kind of recommendations or suggestions you might have developed to address some of the challenges identified.

Stephen J. Flanagan

Yes Cat, indeed we did identify a few policy options for the EU, NATO and the United States that could help maximize the benefits and mitigate some of the challenges associated with potential realization of European strategic autonomy. So first, we highlight the need for continuing dialogue at all levels among EU and U.S. partners to help avoid potential misperceptions and tackle common challenges. That such dialogue should take place on both the strategic and the working levels between the U.S. and EU, as well as between U.S. representatives and the various regional defence groupings. With the new U.S. administration in place, there is a perceived openness to greater engagement on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a growing recognition that the issues of cooperation are extending beyond the traditional realm of defence and security to include a much wider set of systematic challenges such as climate change, trade relationship, technology, health, et cetera. And most notably, of course, the challenges posed by China and Russia. Now, for discussions like these, NATO is unlikely to be the most fitting vehicle for these other matters and should be supplemented with bilateral and multilateral engagement between the United States and EU member states. Secondly, our study argues that the U.S. should adopt an unambiguously supportive approach towards European strategic autonomy as these efforts do, on balance, we believe, encourage European burden sharing within NATO. More concerted U.S.-EU efforts in the direction that could help calm some of the concerns articulated by EU member states that European strategic autonomy efforts might represent a direct decoupling of efforts from the United States. Of course, there will remain many contentious issues to be resolved, one of which is the question of access to defence equipment markets. In this realm, both the EU and the United States have put in place restrictions on third party access to defence procurement programs, defence research and development funding and other capability development programs, as well as a range of export controls. And here we think that eliminating or reducing some of these laws and regulations constraining to a defence and trade technology sharing would be an important step towards deepening the transatlantic cooperation.

Cat McShane

Stephanie, would you like to weigh in here?

Stephanie Pezard

Echoing what Steve just described on concerting U.S.-EU efforts, we also do reiterate the need to foster a constructive NATO-EU relationship and that there would be a relationship that relies on a clear articulation of EU ambition and an agreement also on threats and areas of responsibility. And principally in our report, we emphasize the need for NATO and the EU to settle on both a set of task and mission that Europe needs to be able to handle on its own and also tasks for which a strong European contribution to NATO is essential, and that would all constitute a first step in clearly delineating the responsibilities of NATO and of the EU. And in addition to that, we think that the EU and NATO need to share a basic common understanding of global strategic threats. So the commitment that will be articulated in the Strategic Compass and in NATO's strategic concept need to be aligned. They also need to be mutually reinforcing and they need to be complementary. And we understand that this is already the stated ambition behind this effort, but we do underline that at the practical, day-to-day working level, this is where it gets more challenging and where the complementarity and coherence between these initiatives needs to be effectively established.

Lucia Retter

And finally, just to complement with Stephanie and Steve have said, our study also argues that for the long term benefit of European defence, and also, for the long term benefit of good transatlantic relations, it's important to overcome some of the tensions and some of the skepticism that has appeared following Brexit and focus on restoring a constructive relationship between the EU and the UK in defence matters. We believe it's important to recognize that any exclusion of the UK from European defence more broadly is likely to be both unrealistic but also counter-productive, given that the UK defence industrial base is actually very deeply integrated within the wider European defence industrial base, and there are many multinational primes that operate in the UK, as well as many other EU countries, and the UK is already very deeply involved in some multinational collaborative programs. For example, we know complex weapons collaboration with France or the Combat Air Program, together with Sweden and Italy. And crucially, the UK's military capabilities are critical for delivery of NATO operations in the European theater. We know obviously the nuclear deterrent and also other power projection capabilities from the UK perspective. The UK also firmly remains committed to European defence under the umbrella of NATO as a matter of strategic priority, and this has been quite clearly articulated in the UK's recent integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy that came out in March earlier this year.

Cat McShane

Thank you all for that. That's been really interesting and is quite a lot to unpack here. But I need to ask just sort of a quick question to close our discussion today. So what's happening in this research area now?

Lucia Retter

Good question, Cat. I mean, as I mentioned at the beginning, this is an area of very lively discussion and debate, both in Europe and also in American policy circles and one that we see as having significant momentum. We are now quite eagerly anticipating what the outcomes will be of the ongoing drafting of the EU Strategic Compass that's due to come out next year and in a similar timeframe, the revisions to NATO's own strategic concept. And these are both very fundamental documents that will hopefully articulate the EU's and also NATO's core understanding of what their roles and responsibilities are and also how they intend to address global security challenges. We're likely going to see continued bustling discussion on what European strategic autonomy means, both in defence and beyond. And, of course, how it can be meaningfully put in practice, particularly as it starts to span a very wide range of factors and areas. And we very much as RAND want to be engaged in this discussion, informing this discussion and also drawing on research in this study, as well as our wider research on transatlantic defence and security issues to contribute to this discussion in a meaningful way.

Cat McShane

Thank you all. Thank you, Stephanie, Lucia and Stephen for speaking to us today on today's expert insights with RAND Europe. The study discussed today was European Strategic Autonomy and Defence: Transatlantic Visions and Implications for NATO, U.S. and EU Relations. The study was funded internally by RAND through the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense, federally-funded research and development centers. So if you're interested in finding out more about this research, please visit our website at RAND Europe is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that helps to improve policy and decision making through research and analysis.

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