An important transformation is occurring in Europe. Whether we call it a move toward “strategic autonomy,” “sovereignty,” or whatever else, it is forging a new trajectory of self-reliance.
By Adrien Abecassis
Since taking office, Donald Trump—the president of Europe’s greatest ally—has publicly castigated his counterparts in Europe, denounced Europe as being “set up to take advantage of the US,” and characterized the Europeans not as allies but as “foes.”
The approach of not taking these statements seriously, or downplaying them, did not last very long. To the Europeans, they are serious. For them, the options were always to wait for the Trump storm to pass in the hope of reverting to a “normal” transatlantic relationship once he was out of office, or react and deal with the consequences. Increasingly, Europeans are moving toward the latter.
Growing calls for a “sovereign Europe”
“Europe can no longer entrust its security to the United States alone. It is up to us to assume our responsibilities and to guarantee European security and, thereby, sovereignty,” declared French President Emmanuel Macron in his annual grand speech on foreign policy earlier this month. “And we have only one credible European response: that of our strategic autonomy,” he continued. The French Ministry of Defense echoed him a few days after: “A European defense today is an imperative. We can no longer shelter under the American umbrella.”
A “sovereign Europe” has remained a key theme of Macron’s speeches since his election campaign began. One may say that a French president advocating for greater independence has been nothing new since de Gaulle. But other European leaders have joined Macron. Alluding to the American leadership, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “the times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over. We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”
That statement caused some stir. Her foreign minister doubled down, suggesting in an opinion piece that after seventy years of depending on the US, Europe should pursue “a new world order” in which Germany, France, and its European partners should seek a “balanced partnership” with Washington. For good measure, he added, “Where the USA crosses the line, we Europeans must form a counterweight—as difficult as that can be,” and advised Europe advance “where America retreats.” Merkel had to downplay the tone by calling this comment a “personal expression.” However, her own spokesman immediately stressed that “the article conveyed much of what constitutes the common stance of the government towards the United States” and that it “presents observations that are preoccupying the government—namely stronger European unity and the question of Europe taking on more responsibility.”
In turn, two weeks ago, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker titled his annual State of the European Union speech, “The Hour of European Sovereignty,” asserting that the “geopolitical situation makes this Europe’s hour: the time for European sovereignty has come. It is time Europe took its destiny into its own hands. It is time Europe developed what I coined Weltpolitikfähigkeit—the capacity to play a role in shaping global affairs. Europe has to become a more sovereign actor in international relations.” Indeed, “strategic autonomy” is itself a goal defined in the last EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Defense Policy.
Why it’s different this time
This is not the first case of transatlantic divergence. (Far from it; consider the Iraq War.) What is different this time is that never before has the United States acted so unilaterally, seeming to disregard European interests with acts such as the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement or the scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal. Never before has an American president declared NATO “obsolete” and raised doubts about the core aspect of what the alliance is about: mutual protection. What is the US going to do in times of crisis? No one can say. President Trump’s behavior quickly put Europe’s quest for strategic autonomy at the forefront of its collective interests.
This quest could seem contradictory with the fact that many European countries—including Germany—have not yet met their pledge to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. And most European policy makers say that the US is right in hammering the Europeans to invest much more in military equipment. But even if the increase of this focused measure on defense spending is slow, broad steps towards self-reliance are multiplying.
The result is a series of new projects on common European defense capabilities suddenly ending long-standing intra-European tensions. For example, Dassault Aviation and Airbus just teamed up to build a new generation of air combat systems, with a requirement from the German and French governments that the new fighter be designed and manufactured to be “ITAR-free”—that is, without any US components—preventing it from being submitted to the US legislation (ITAR, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations) that could block future exports.
These steps are also part of the ongoing discussion to give more substance to the mutual defense commitment embodied in the Treaty on European Union (Article 42-7) to foster a strictly European security guarantee alongside NATO’s Article 5 (the article of NATO’s founding treaty that enshrines the principle of collective defense). In his last speech, President Macron called on European states to “enter into concrete discussions on the nature of reciprocal solidarity and mutual defense relations under our Treaty commitments. Europe can no longer entrust its security to the United States alone. It is up to us to assume our responsibilities and to guarantee European security and, thereby, sovereignty.” The European Commission is working on it.
As with Europe’s plan to move toward more financial independence, they are creating the instruments to circumvent the US’s financial circuits and retain their own sovereignty to trade with the countries they wish. In this manner, facing US threats of secondary sanctions on any company doing business with Iran, European countries are imagining a “special purpose” financial company to thwart US sanctions and allow Iran to continue to sell oil in the EU.
And how can we not link this move to Europe’s big push on internet regulations, from the enactment of data protection regulations toward European standards (and away from American ones) to new copyrights and property protection against which all the major American internet giants thoroughly fought in vain? Both prompted heated debates for months. The protections were justified in Europe by the need to retain decision-making autonomy and not succumb to US regulations.
An evolution that was accelerated by Trump’s policies
Thus, it seems as though the Atlantic Ocean has widened on a number of issues since President Trump’s election. But the truth is the stage was already set for divergence.
For at least the past decade, relational and intellectual American disinvestment toward Europe has mounted. Europe was seen, not without reason, as a continent where not much was going on once the EU enlargement was completed in 2004. Europe seemed entangled in Byzantine institutional disputes (culminating with the debates on the failed constitution), and its economy was stagnant even before the Great Recession. As a result, Europe was gradually moving away from its image as the vibrant center of world affairs.
At the same time, attacked on its own soil, the United States refocused its attention on the Middle East. The financial crisis of 2008 affected US power and resources, and it had to face the meteoric rise of China. All of these events led, very logically, to the US redefining its priorities, pivoting from Europe to Asia.
In March 2013, the Visegrád Group, an alliance of the main countries of Eastern Europe, invited then-French President François Hollande and Chancellor Merkel to discuss Europe’s future. Barack Obama had just been reelected in the US; nobody conceived that Donald Trump might one day become president, nor did anyone imagine that Russia would seize Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, and foster a conflict close to the borders of Europe. And yet, at the time, in this closed room, Merkel painted a portrait of a world in which the United States would inevitably diverge more and more from Europe. It was necessary, she said, to give up decades of strategic comfort and put European security back into its own hands for the first time in seventy years. A French president saying such things wouldn’t have surprised anyone, but a German chancellor saying it was remarkable. More telling was that none of the heads of state and government present around the table—albeit representing among the most Atlanticist countries of Europe—disputed her analysis. On the contrary, they supported it, though none could say it publicly.
Trump acted as a catalyst; he put the topic bluntly out there. What was said in this closed meeting five years ago is now said publicly. But neither the election of Donald Trump nor the Russian actions in Ukraine triggered the real shift among Europeans. The seeds were there, and if it had not been for Trump, sooner or later we would have had this conversation.
Why a “sovereign Europe” is a good thing for the US and the world
Perhaps most ironic, the building of a “sovereign” and “strategically independent” Europe is, in fact, a great American success.
That Trump seems to be a cheerleader for the unwinding of the European Union should not hide the fact that the United States has always called for the self-reliance of Europe. Since the end of the Second World War, America’s official doctrine has been that a strong Europe is in the best interest of the United States. Scholars and experts may have questioned whether the US really wanted a strong Europe, and politicians may have tried from time to time to cast some doubts. But Europe itself would not have emerged without the Marshall Plan and American pressure on European governments to come together. President Kennedy said it very well in a January 1963 news conference: “our invitation to Europe is to unite, to be strong, and to join with us as an equal partner in meeting the problems in other parts of the world in the same way that some years ago the United States helped Europe build its strength.” That is what alliance is all about.
Yet, for a long time, American presidents were talking to a brick wall. For decades, war-traumatized Europeans—especially western Europeans—did not want to think about power; they preferred to take shelter behind American protection. In the 1980s, the great reluctance to install Pershing missiles on European soil illustrated this preference well. After the fall of the Berlin wall, Europeans longed for the end of history, having no will at all to return to the throes of hard power. They wished to put the tragedies of history behind them.
But history struck back. The shifting global balance of power, and the wounds of the ongoing crises eventually woke up the Europeans. It took time, but the gamble on Europe made by Roosevelt, Truman, and their successors is now succeeding seventy years later. This change is real, and we must think about what comes next. A new era is opening that will be different from the one before.
A fully sovereign Europe is a long shot. Certainly, this will not be the end of the alliance. The two sides of the Atlantic have bound destinies. They have deep-rooted ties that nothing can erase—one cannot rewrite centuries of history. But we might have to rethink it in some fashion. A more self-reliant Europe would inevitably mean a Europe less dependent on the US, and requesting allies to do more by themselves is also accepting that eventually, they won’t be as docile as they used to be. This is not a problem unless a lack of dialogue causes unnecessary tensions, as in the Iran deal or the Paris Agreement.
“If the United States but also Russia or China tries to play some Europeans against others, this is precisely because the European Union is even stronger than it thought. The challenge ahead is to ensure both a powerful Europe and a Europe that protects,” said the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian in front of the UN General Assembly this week, calling at the same time to “restore effective multilateralism” facing “actors who are demolishing it.”
A new transatlantic relationship with a sovereign Europe will emerge. It will not go back to what it used to be—the world has changed too much. “Allies today are still extremely important, but balances, and sometimes the reflexes on which they were built, need to be reviewed,” said President Macron.
We need to have this conversation. Taking a long perspective, this new path between close allies may not be as troubling as it sounds. Because in the end, the two global powers are built on many common values and defend very similar worldviews. In a multipolar world, having two full-fledged powers instead of one might, in fact, be the best scenario.
—Adrien Abecassis, Weatherhead Scholars Program Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
Weatherhead Scholars Program Fellow Adrien Abecassis is a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France. He was a political advisor to French President François Hollande from 2012–2017. His research interests include diplomacy, European affairs, public opinion, and populism.