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Research Questions

  1. How might European strategic autonomy in defence be realised in the next four-five years?
  2. What implications do different 'futures' of European strategic autonomy in defence have for NATO, the U.S., and EU-US relations?
  3. What specific challenges and opportunities might each 'future' realisation of European strategic autonomy in defence present for NATO, the U.S. and the EU?
  4. In what ways could NATO, the U.S. and the EU mitigate the challenges raised by different future realisations of European strategic autonomy in defence?

Competing visions of European strategic autonomy have been widely debated in European Union (EU) policy circles. The term itself has undergone a fast evolution: from an initial focus on defence to inclusion of a much broader set of security considerations such as the economy, health or technology, to name just a few. At its core, however, the concept retains an important defence dimension.

Yet the path towards greater EU defence integration has been bumpy and focused on setting up new institutions, frameworks and programmes often without providing adequate resources, sustained political support or clear outputs. This legacy raises questions for the future of European strategic autonomy in defence and means many experts still view the concept with scepticism.

This study examines the implications of three different possible futures of European strategic autonomy in defence, using a scenario methodology. A first scenario envisages the development of a strong European pillar of NATO on the basis of current trends. A second scenario considers a faltering EU defence integration and transatlantic fragmentation. A third and final scenario envisages a strong EU defence that does not rely on NATO for access to military capabilities and structures. Through these scenarios, this study seeks to answer the fundamental question of 'What does European strategic autonomy in defence mean for the EU, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and EU-US relations'?

Key Findings

  • There is a lack of clarity associated with the term 'European strategic autonomy', hampering constructive dialogue and action. The fundamental differences between EU member states' understanding and hopes for what European strategic autonomy in defence is and should be, are likely to perpetuate the ambiguity underpinning these discussions. The perceived mismatch between expectations, ambitions and actions also results in a degree of US scepticism vis-à-vis European strategic autonomy.
  • Most of the study's interviewees identified a stronger Europe as a benefit to both NATO and the U.S., balancing out the potential risks of diverging interest and ambitions. From a US national perspective, justifying investment in European defence matters to the US public would likely be more difficult if European nations chose not to invest in strengthening their defence contribution to NATO.
  • While the rhetoric and stated intentions are aligned for an EU-NATO complementarity, the practical reality of achieving greater coherence and avoiding duplication within this cooperation have been insufficient. The success of EU-NATO complementarity on an implementation level continues to be a challenging process not least due to tensions that exist between some members of one but not the other forum, preventing a genuine programme of information sharing and common planning.
  • The strategic autonomy of Europe is intimately tied up with the actions and intentions of the U.S., its internal politics, as well as its foreign, defence and security policy and power projection abroad. It is also shaped by other external influencers such as the UK, Turkey and ambitions, policies and actions of China and Russia.


  • A continued dialogue at all levels among EU and US partners could help avoid misperceptions and tackle common challenges.
  • An unambiguously supportive approach to European strategic autonomy in defence by the U.S. would benefit all: the EU, the U.S. and NATO.
  • Constructive NATO-EU relationship demands a clear articulation of EU ambition and agreement on threats and areas of responsibility.
  • Restoring a constructive relationship with the UK would benefit the EU, NATO and the U.S. in their response to threats and challenges.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was made possible by the independent research and development (R&D) provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its US Department of Defense federally funded R&D centres. The research was conducted within RAND Europe.

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