European Strategic Autonomy in the wake of the US presidential election

Examining what the Biden Presidency Means for Trans-Atlantic Relations

, by Balázs Sean Brandt

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

European Strategic Autonomy in the wake of the US presidential election
President-elect Joe Biden addresses the Concordia Europe Summit in Athens, Greece in 2017. (David Lienemann/Concordia)

2020 has been a crazy year, especially for world politics. But even in our radically transformed lives, one event caught everybody’s attention. After weeks and days of uncertainty, the next leader of ‘the free world’ was elected. Despite all the controversy surrounding the election, most have accepted Joseph Biden as the 46th president of the United States. His election led to a sense of relief within Europe as well. But what exactly does a Biden presidency mean for the European Union, and what changes can be expected in transatlantic relations in the near future? The key to understanding this lies with the concept of Strategic Autonomy.

Strategic Autonomy has become a call-word for several European politicians. Those pushing for the idea argue that the EU must be more independent. Particularly during times of uncertainty when the world order is undergoing a shift, the Union needs to rely on no other international actor but itself. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Union has aspired to become a global actor. In 2016, Federica Mogherini presented the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS) which was supposed to equip the Union with a reliable and practical foreign policy strategy. However, just like in other policy areas, after agreeing on a shared vision, the follow-through action was missing. Time and again, the Union has proved to be an inefficient international player when it came to external policies. Despite this, some European leaders have aspired for a more decisive role in the world, and their new go-to phrase became European Strategic Autonomy. Russian resurgence, the Trump administration’s unpredictable foreign policies, and China’s extending sphere of influence are all indications that the Union cannot remain reactive and geopolitically passive. A strong European Union is in the interest of European citizens as well as the liberal democratic world. However, it is not enough to merely line up behind a catchphrase whose meaning is not altogether clear. What is needed is a practical action plan, a reformed European External Actions Service (EEAS), and cooperation between member states.

Following the elections, a heated debate on Strategic Autonomy emerged between Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s Minister of Defence, and French President Emmanuel Macron. Kramp-Karrenbauer, upon assessing the future of EU-US relations, claimed that the EU must rely on the US as a military and economic ally. According to her, Strategic Autonomy is closer to an illusion in European foreign policy rather than a deliverable action plan. Macron, on the other hand, argued for the further strengthening of the EU’s military and economic capabilities to become more independent and reliable as a strategic partner with an outward-looking profile. It is vital to examine the key characteristics of this new chapter in transatlantic relations and assess the balance that the EU needs to strike between following the US and paving its own path.

America leading again

Undoubtedly, the last four years have done a lot of damage done to the reputation of US diplomacy, and Biden will have to fight hard to regain this trust. What we can expect from the new administration is a return to value-based multilateralism and a more engaged approach to international organisations. But Biden will also do everything in his power to Make America Lead Again. Without a doubt, he will try to earn back the US’s position as a global hegemon, but for this, he will need strong and powerful allies. In this situation, the EU can prove its capacity as a strong and reliable global player—an actor that delivers on a shared vision, one that can use its power outside its borders, one with Strategic Autonomy. The EU needs to be a bastion of shared values and predictability in challenging times of new global threats. This is the prerequisite of a mutually beneficial transatlantic partnership. The Biden presidency can be an opportunity for the EU to rewrite its reputation of doing too little, too late. }}}

Being strategic

A personnel change and the increased level of trust that it brings will inherently make European foreign relations with the United States more engaged. In addition, in some policy areas, the Union can act as the policymaker rather than a policy taker. But a significant weakness of the Union having a common foreign policy is that internal disputes can give the US an upper hand in the equation. But let’s start by examining the areas of opportunities that the Union has.

The European Union cannot solve global warming on its own. However, its current position as the vanguard of sustainability and the front runner of net-zero carbon emissions can give it a strategic advantage compared to the US. The Union can also capitalise on this during negotiations on other issues. Re-joining the Paris Agreement will be a lengthy procedure, and it will also test oil-dependent American companies’ patience and support for Biden. On the other hand, the EU can rely on its own 2030 and 2050 plans to achieve something remarkable in the field of sustainability. The European Green Deal is a sign of the Union strengthening upon autonomy. The deal protects and helps coal-dependent industries in the transition phase, while still setting the path for and giving certain benefits to renewable energy companies.

Digitalisation can very well be another key aspect of the EU’s strategic autonomy plan. The von der Leyen Commission has clearly categorised the concept of a digital EU as one of its main priorities. A Europe Fit for the Digital Age is undeniably a need for all European citizens. It is important to protect our own digital borders and set up a functioning collaboration on cybersecurity among member states. Furthermore, the EU’s autonomy in the digital sphere is also related to promoting fundamental values and rights, particularly now when disinformation is a pressing issue. In this regard, the Union must not let the US interfere in its digital autonomy, which is the key to a prosperous digitalised economy.

These fields allow the EU to strengthen its strategic autonomy and not rely too heavily on America. However, the US clearly prioritises the restoration and reimagination of the transatlantic partnership. The Biden administration has clearly expressed that it will be strict on its defence policy, something that the EU has been unable to establish on its own. All of this can easily undo any steps made towards the pursuit of European Strategic Autonomy. The Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is also a factor that might tilt the balance towards dependence on and policy-taking from the US. The European pillar of the defence partnership must be strengthened, and merely fulfilling obligations is not enough. We cannot just rely on proposals coming from the other side of the Atlantic. There are two options for the EU to preserve its Strategic Autonomy in defence and security. Either it can go along with the EUGS outlined by Mogherini, or instruct Josep Borrell to create a new strategy that better reflects the new geopolitical realities.

Strategic Autonomy must also appear in the Union’s approach to strategically important regions. It has to be more present in the Balkans, South Americas, and in the Middle East. If we let these regions remain the playground of other global superpowers, the European External Action Service (EEAS) might as well admit a hurtful defeat.

Predictable unpredictability

If the Union truly wishes to commit to the idea of Strategic Autonomy, then it must leave the rhetoric behind and focus on making deals and acting on its own. Of course, treating politics as a zero-sum game is dangerous. But manoeuvring in times of uncertainty must reflect genuine and credible strategies, not an acceptance of policy from the US. In the long run, the EU cannot be left without some form of autonomy and independent strategic thinking.

While Biden’s values and policies are more closely aligned with those of the EU, it would be unwise to believe that a change in the White House can resolve much deeper-rooted issues in the transatlantic alliance between these two global powers. European Strategic Autonomy has become a necessity. European citizens of both this and the next generation need a stronger Europe in the world, one which is better suited to the challenges of the 21st century and does not rely on anyone but on itself. If there is anything that the Trump presidency has taught us, it’s that while the EU needs to be a strong and reliable partner to the US, it also needs to be capable of sustaining itself and its interests in the world, with or without US support. January 20th cannot come soon enough, and we will follow Biden and Harris’ first steps and their approach towards Europe with interest.

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