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European Leaders Mull Strategic Autonomy but Doubts Persist

FILE - European Union flags flutter outside EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 28, 2015.
FILE - European Union flags flutter outside EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 28, 2015.

Four years ago, newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron called for Europe to build “the capacity to act autonomously” in security matters so that the continent would be less dependent on the United States and could decide to act without U.S. backing.

Most European leaders derided Macron’s idea as far-fetched. “Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end,” German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has said, most recently just last year.

But in the wake of the U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, her position has shifted. It is time to make “the European Union a strategic player to be reckoned with,” she announced last week in a commentary for the Atlantic Council, a New York-based think tank.

She isn’t alone in rethinking the future of the transatlantic security arrangement.

Europe’s opinion pages have been full of columns from politicians and security advisers advocating for the continent to become more independent militarily and less dependent on Washington. European leaders have been decrying President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as precipitous and complain Washington did not consult sufficiently with NATO allies.

FILE - Belgian soldiers conduct training at the Grafenwoehr Training Area, as part of the European Union's Battle Group 2014-02, Feb. 21, 2014. (US Army photo)
FILE - Belgian soldiers conduct training at the Grafenwoehr Training Area, as part of the European Union's Battle Group 2014-02, Feb. 21, 2014. (US Army photo)

Armin Laschet, a contender to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor, said last month: “We’re standing before an epochal change.”

Even traditionally pro-American British politicians like Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, and a key partner for the United States in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, questions the reliability of the U.S. as a defense partner.

On Monday he said Britain should strengthen its defense partnership with Europe to combat threats. In the U.S. there is “now an overwhelming political constraint on military interventions,” which represents a serious challenge to Britain and NATO, he said, in a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks that precipitated the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Strategic autonomy

However, there is little agreement in Europe about what strategic autonomy should mean and what Europe should do with it., The 27 member states of the EU have clashed repeatedly over foreign policy, from relations with Russia to whether China is an adversary or competitor.

Central European leaders are especially nervous about loosening any defense ties with Washington and remain unconvinced they could rely on the Western Europeans in a confrontation with Russia.

And skeptics question whether Europe is really prepared to spend what it would take to become a serious stand-alone strategic player, especially as they struggle with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

On average, European Union countries spend around 1.2% of their GDP on defense. Russia spends 4.3 percent while the U.S. spends 3.4%.

But in a recent debate in the House of Commons, Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker and chair of the British parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the lesson he drew from the Afghanistan withdrawal was the need to help reinvigorate Britain’s European NATO partners and “to make sure that we are not dependent on a single ally, on the decision of a single leader, but that we can work together.”

Changes needed?

Lawrence Freedman, the influential emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, suspects the surge in talk about European strategic autonomy, though, is a knee-jerk reaction to what Armin Laschet has described as the “biggest NATO debacle” since the founding of the alliance.

“It is always tempting but usually unwise to draw large geopolitical conclusions from specific events, however dramatic and distressing,” he noted in a commentary for The Times of London this week.

The United States’ core strategic alliances in Europe and even Asia have weathered plenty of setbacks and disputes in the past, he said.

“These alliances were built up over decades and remain in place. They have survived past disagreements and are unlikely to be set aside because the Biden administration mishandled the final withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan,” he added. “The post-mortems on the withdrawal from Afghanistan will most likely conclude that there is no need to make any fundamental policy changes,” he added.

European interventions with no or little U.S. military support have not fared well. In July Macron announced that France's anti-jihadist intervention in the volatile Sahel region, involving over 5,000 troops and launched by his predecessor in office, will end next year.

The French leader has for years tried to persuade European allies to help shoulder more of the burden of the anti-terror fight in the Sahel, but to no avail. Britain, Denmark, and Sweden provided helicopter capabilities for air-mobility but little else from other European countries aside from some symbolic deployments emerged.

In almost a pre-echo of Biden’s reasons for withdrawing from Afghanistan, Macron said: “We cannot secure certain areas because some states simply refuse to assume their duties. Otherwise, it is an endless task.” He added that the “long-term presence” of French troops “cannot be a substitute” for nation states handling their own affairs.

Some diplomats suggest the current surge in talk about strategic autonomy will diminish as the shock of withdrawal wears off. They suggest much of the criticism should be seen as displacement activity, a way of coping with antagonistic urges. “They feel bad about leaving [Afghanistan] but they are also relieved to be out of a forever war they know couldn’t be won,” a European envoy in Brussels suggested to VOA. He asked not to be identified for this story.

Other diplomats think the transatlantic security bonds will remain tight, but it will take some time for recovery from what they admit was a disorderly withdrawal.

It is going to take quite a long time for the West as a whole — because it is a Western failure, a Western disaster, this is not just the UK and the U.S. — to recover from all this, to recover our reputation,” Kim Darroch, former British ambassador to the U.S. and the EU, told the BBC last month.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, though, says the withdrawal has offered “an opportunity for us to discuss the European Union as a geopolitical actor,” he said. “But this will require unity, in small things and in big things,” he told reporters in Brussels this week.

Oxford University historian Timothy Garton Ash agrees. In an interview Tuesday he told the broadcaster Euronews: “President Joe Biden has made the case for what all Europeans are talking about, namely strategic autonomy and European sovereignty.”

However, Ash, an advocate for European strategic autonomy, lamented that European powers missed the chance to show what they could do. “There were 2,500 American troops stabilizing Afghanistan. France and Britain alone have 10,000 troops and a rapid reaction force. Why didn't we have a European conversation about what we could have done about it?”