Here we go again. And this time, discussions on this matter are even more heated: Calls for “European Strategic Autonomy” and a “European Army” have resurfaced in public debate in the past weeks and European leaders are – once again – reiterating their proposals.
First, NATO’s debacle in Afghanistan, now AUKUS, the trilateral defence pact. Forged by the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, the latter seems to be yet another piece of evidence that the times of Europe’s complete reliance on the transatlantic partnership are over. The French government is furious, after losing a $90 billion nuclear-powered submarine deal, even feels “stabbed in the back”. Meanwhile, President Macron seizes the opportunity to advocate for the long-envisaged proposals of his Sorbonne speech in 2017.
The idea of establishing strategic autonomy and sovereignty is not a novel one in Europe. Not least with the election of President Trump, European foreign policy has suffered from enduring disillusionment: Uncle Sam is gone, NATO is “brain-dead”, according to Macron, and the European Union has not yet put forward a motion to surmount its strategic dependence on the United States. Amid the multipolar, complex, and fragile international relationships shaping this decade, it is time for Europe to assert itself on the international landscape.
Yet, how should we define European autonomy and integrity?
In the wake of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, European leaders acknowledged that they did not rise to their responsibility of protecting the Afghan people. In the light of contractually defined morality, namely article J.1 of the title V of the Maastricht Treaty, current Common Foreign and Security Policy did not achieve its objectives “to safeguard the common values, […] and independence of the Union” or “to consolidate […] respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”; thus, values that constituted the very foundation of the European Union’s integration process.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the very first federal movement, that would pave the way for the creation of the European Union, was one that defined the moral values upon which Europe’s institutions shall be built: The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
What European history clearly illustrates in this vein, is the manner in which diplomatic relationships are approached in Europe. Member states are extraordinarily reluctant when it comes to increasing military expenditure. It goes hand in glove with their history that member states still have not reached the “2% of GDP” NATO commitment to defence spending in order to ensure the alliance’s military preparedness. Thus, even without NATO, which some accuse to be inhibiting European strategic autonomy, it seems unlikely that European leaders would unanimously agree to Macronian proposals.
As a matter of fact, member states rarely act in unison in the realm of military defence: Dissent prevails in European foreign affairs because perceived menaces greatly vary across the continent. Brexit exacerbated this fragmentation as the United Kingdom was one of the only member states that shared French geostrategic interests.
Yet regardless of this, being eclipsed by NATO and the U.S. Army, independent military forces would not necessarily grant the European Union the strategic assertiveness it aims to reach.
But this does not translate into sheer incapacity. European history has entrenched an unforgettable link, a common culture of remembrance between the former belligerents, perpetuating a pan-European foundation of morality that remains pertinent to this day. Having learned its lessons from the past, the European family could thus emerge as a beacon of diplomatic morality; a salient feature in a world in which foundational principles, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention, are flagrantly violated. The Syrian civil war, for instance, brutally exposed that Western institutionalism, conceived to uphold democratic principles, is in decline. Indeed, despotism prevailed in the conflict in Damascus. Precisely herein lie the moral obligations, and thus the future prospects of European Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The European Union‘s initiation
In face of a globally deteriorating state of democracy and the rule of law, the young and unfinished Europe of Maastricht has yet to learn how to negotiate with autocratic regimes to protect its principles. In this regard, the weakening of the transatlantic alliance is a veritable initiation; a turning point at which Europe has to establish which moral code will determine its future decisions.
Achieving European integrity and sovereignty with moral assertiveness reaches far beyond military and economic dimensions of European foreign policy. It entails broadening the very definition of the ideals Europe was built on and applying them to a contemporary context. Inevitably, this has many implications: For some, upholding European ideals means officially declaring the repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang a genocide, and thus banning all products from the Single Market that are allegedly linked to forced labour. Fearing subsequent Chinese retaliation, the EU’s export powerhouse Germany would be particularly affected by such a decision. For others, exerting authority would have meant cancelling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project in the aftermath of the affair around Alexei Navalny.
As for economic sovereignty, the pandemic has equally exposed Europe’s vulnerabilities with regard to international supply chains, prompting shortages in national medical sectors. With 80% of active pharmaceutical ingredients being sourced from India and China, European economic dependence has revealed itself to be a serious issue. And yet, trade-offs between extensively outsourcing production for profitability, and supposedly protectionist measures for economic self-sufficiency are merely one of the moral dilemmas which Europeans have been confronted with recently.
At the heart of all of this lies the European citizen. Whether European institutions act in accordance with precepts of decency, or any other moral consensus, shall be decided by their people. The crux of the matter is that institutional moral considerations are the ones that interfere most with the individual’s beliefs.
Political claims of a young generation
Fortunately, the responsibility arising from Europe’s initiation process appears to be greatly embraced by the European youth. Evidence, such as the European Parliament Youth Survey 2021, suggests that the young generation, having inherited the Maastricht Treaty as their political status quo, is particularly politicised and thus aware of its generational responsibilities. Protests for climate justice of Fridays For Future, or against the repression of Uighurs, a movement led by MEP Raphaël Glucksmann, are more than a manifestation of naive, idealistic views. Demanding institutional accountability, particularly in times of upheaval, the youth constitutes a crucial asset in accelerating the pace of Europe’s emancipatory transformation.
Of course, it must not be neglected that Europe could greatly benefit from institutional reforms that envisage the creation of European armed forces. Likewise, abolishing unanimity in certain matters of foreign policy could render hitherto long decision-making procedures more efficient. Yet, the latter political evolutions towards a more federalist institutional architecture should not stand for themselves, but be an integral part of pursuing the European Union’s moral vocation.
So far, Europe has been prone to external crises, the latter having divided its member states on how to proceed in foreign and economic policy. In the process of forging a pan-European moral identity, which shall one day establish cohesion and political effectiveness, it is time for our generation to advance Europe’s resilience in periods of upheaval. And that is the moral emancipation of the European Union.