Assessing EU strategic Autonomy vis-à-vis the US.

Over the past few decades, the EU has increasingly found the need for its own policy and approach to global issues. This increase has largely been catalysed by geopolitical developments which have occurred over the years such as the unilateral decision of the US to go to war in Iraq. Furthermore, the EU has found itself at odds with the US time and again due to divergences in policy which has resulted in the seemingly desperate need for autonomy. Autonomy for the EU has come to fruition in many ways. The Common Defence and Security Policy (CDSP) was a significant advancement of the EU’s autonomous capabilities, but the CDSP was not intended to compete with NATO and so its purpose and capability remained limited. The EU made advancements in many areas by promoting its core interests like multilateralism, defending its interests in International Law, and defining its own global strategy and common foreign policy. Yet the question of the EU’s strategic autonomy remains as it navigates a fast-changing world and new challenges such as the war in Ukraine. 

This paper will explore the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ and it will assess the extent to which the EU has achieved strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US. It will discuss the transatlantic relationship and explores the limits of EU power by using empirical examples such as the JCPOA affair and the Ukraine war. This paper begins by addressing the over-defined and somewhat obscure concept of strategic autonomy especially as it relates to the EU. After this it uses two separate case studies to assess EU strategic autonomy in the broad sense vis-à-vis the US. The first case study of the JCPOA demonstrates the EU’s inability to truly achieve ‘autonomy from’ the US using the outcome as evidence. The second case study looks towards the war in Ukraine and shows how the EU’s ability to compete globally is limited as it does not yet have the ‘autonomy to’ protect or promote its interests as it sees fit. This paper will show how the EU has not yet achieved strategic autonomy and it will demonstrate the limits of the EU’s ability to oppose the US and choose its own path. This is due to its dependence on the US and the strengthening of the transatlantic relationship which was a result of the Ukraine war and the power imbalance between the EU and US.

Understanding EU Strategic Autonomy 

The concept of EU Strategic autonomy was born in the realm of defence and security, yet the EU’s High Representative Borrell (2020b) argues that the concept has been ‘widened to new subjects of a ‘technological’ and ‘economic’ essence but that the defence and security elements remain ‘predominant’. Autonomy is about strengthening the agencies of power and reducing and limiting external dependence (Youngs, 2021). In the economic sense, the EU has long advocated for economic interdependence both for the development and growth of economy but also to minimise the risks of conflict. The definition above flips that idea upside down and instead argues that very high economic interdependence increases the risk of conflict due to limited manoeuvrability and reliance on other powers. This has been exacerbated because ‘what was traditionally called soft power has become an instrument of hard power’ (Borrell, 2020b) as evidenced by the Covid crisis which demonstrated the uneven nature of interdependence. The concept of autonomy can also be viewed in two different ways, ‘autonomy from’ and ‘autonomy to’ (Veen and Langenberg, 2022). The EU can gain strategic ‘autonomy from’ external threats, powers and developments. And/or the EU can gain strategic ‘autonomy to’ improve its ability to compete globally. Both conceptions are relevant and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This definition is somewhat reflective of Youngs (2021) and underscores the vagueness of the concept. This is because it does not specify which dependencies must be reduced nor which means of power must be strengthened to increase the EU’s global competitiveness and actorness. 

According to Borrell (2020a) ‘Strategic Autonomy’ is defined as the ability to assign preferences and choose direction in foreign affairs based upon one’s values and interests. But this must be matched with the institutional, political, and material means to achieve the preferred policy goals, be it in collaboration with external partners and allies or entirely alone (Lippert, Ondarza and Perthes, 2019). This paper will assess the EU’s strategic autonomy using a more specific definition of EU strategic autonomy. It will define the concept of EU strategic autonomy in two parts. The EU’s ability to promote (and defend) its interests and its ability to achieve the objectives born out of those interests. This definition includes two underlying requirements, the first is that the interests must be clearly defined and second the EU must have the capability to achieve the outcomes it desires. Failure to do so would be indicative of its lack of strategic autonomy. 

The dependence of the EU on the US is a central theme in this research. This is because EU dependence on the US significantly limits its ability to act in a strategically autonomous manner. Some of the underlying reasons are that the EU firmly holds to international law and multilateralism, while the US is more willing to act unilaterally and ignore international law as it sees fit (Smith, 2018). As such, EU strategic autonomy will be assessed vis-à-vis the US because of the massive dependence in the realms of defence and security. In addition, the EU Strategic Autonomy must be understood in the context of a changing global order wherein EU interests require it to be a global actor. Thus, the EU’s global actorness, and the transatlantic relationship are of primary focus in this research and are used to measure the EU’s strategic autonomy. 

Case Study 1: The EU’s Capability limitations | JCPOA

The desire for the EU’s strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US was evidenced by the 2003 Security Strategy which was in-part a reaction to the US-led Iraq war (Cronberg, 2017). The strategy placed considerable emphasis on “effective multilateralism” and the preservation of the rules-based global order and the UN Charter. The JCPOA agreement was an example of the potential of multilateralism and the EU invested substantial political capital into this agreement. This significantly improved the EU’s credibility as a global security actor (Aggestam and Hyde‐Price, 2019). Furthermore, it represented the EU’s strategic interests as the Iran nuclear crisis became a testing ground for the EU’s foreign (external) policy ambitions. Such ambitions can be defined as the promotion of multilateralism and consensual crisis management with actors that have vastly different strategic objectives (Alcaro, 2021). Other EU objectives included ensuring the non-proliferation of nuclear arms which Iran’s nuclear programme threatened, but also the security aspect as a more violent approach to curbing the Iranian nuclear programme such as another US-led war in the middle east (Cronberg, 2017). Such a war would likely spring the entire middle east into conflict due to Iran’s influence and proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen (Alcaro, 2021). The EU had made a huge effort to ensure the success of the deal and the JCPOA became evidence of the EU’s growing global role and strategic capability. 

So, Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw the US from the deal naturally resulted in a major fracture of the transatlantic relationship and catalysed the EU’s efforts to increase its strategic autonomy. Trump was highly critical of the EU and argued that the Iran deal was the ‘worst’ deal in history (Toosi, 2019). And it wasn’t too long until he withdrew the US from the JCPOA and began implementing a policy of maximum pressure on Iran wherein heavy sanctions were placed upon the Iranian economy in an attempt to isolate it from the world. The EU objected to this, and its interests were made clear in a joint statement by the E3 leaders where they said that they, stood ‘committed to the JCPOA’, its ‘full implementation by all sides’ and argued that the preservation of the deal was in their ‘shared national security interests’ (Iran Watch, 2017). The EU chose to make a serious effort to save the JCPOA deal and help Iran circumvent the unilateral US sanctions by trying to leverage the Euro and EU markets. It showed how the EU had the determination to stand and act autonomously from the US and spoke volumes to the EU’s strategic and autonomous capabilities. 

The most notable effort was the ‘Instrument in Support of Trade Exchange’ (INSTEX) which was a special purpose vehicle designed to facilitate EU-Iran trade and avoid US sanctions. Yet the failure of the EU to save the deal can be attributed to the fact that its policy options and choices failed to impact the ‘risk calculus’ of the EU-based companies which were fearful of US primary and secondary sanctions (Lohmann, 2021). INSTEX was only designed to facilitate trade of goods which were not being sanctioned by the US and yet still the mechanism only carried out one single transaction (Alcaro, 2021). This is despite the fact that there were 8 EU countries and the UK which were signed up to it. Furthermore, trade between the EU and Iran fell in 2019 by 71.5% year-over-year in 2019 with Iranian exports to Europe dropping 92.59% and Iranian imports of EU goods dropping 49.16% (Financial Tribune, 2020). The EU’s inability to protect EU companies from US sanctions and the failure of the INSTEX mechanism demonstrated the ‘futility’ (Sauerbrey, 2020) of the EU trying to achieve strategic autonomy from the US. 

Despite the fact that the JCPOA was never formally dissolved, Iran exceeded the nuclear enrichment limits in 2019 and as of March 2023, Iran has reached nuclear enrichment level of 83.7% (NBC, 2023). This is far above the JCPOA agreement which limited Iran’s enrichment to 3.67% and just short of the 90% required for weapons grade Uranium (NBC, 2023). Ultimately, the EU’s efforts proved to be to little avail and were largely ‘symbolic’ as the EU along with the UK, Russia and China were incapable of keeping the deal fully operational (Aggestam and Hyde‐Price, 2019). In fact, it showed US strength relative to the other global powers and the weakness of the EU vis-à-vis the US.  The initial success of the JCPOA became a thorn in the EU’s side when the US withdrew and attempted to destroy the deal, which was significantly detrimental to the EU’s credibility as a strategically autonomous, global actor. As per the definition of strategic autonomy put forward in the previous section, the EU was incapable of matching its policy goals with the institutional, political and material means necessary to achieve them. The EU’s interests relating to Iran, of promoting multilateralism in global security affairs, safeguarding the non-proliferation agreement and ensuring a more secure and safe middle east have not been achieved. This is because the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the agreement effectively led to the current situation where Iran is closer than ever to attaining weapons-grade uranium and this threatens the security of the region. It shows that the EU does not have strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US, and this is in part due to US power, but also due to the incapability of the EU to meet its desired and expected policy outcomes. 

Case Study 2: Junior Player | The Ukraine war and Strategic Autonomy

European security is one of the primary concerns of the EU. While it relies on NATO for defence the security aspects are far reaching and even include the use of EU forces under the CDSP. Yet the strategic autonomy of the EU was put into serious question as the prospect of war loomed over eastern Europe in late 2021 and early 2022. The war in Ukraine is still ongoing and some argue that it sends mixed signals about the EU’s capacity for strategic autonomy (Costa and Barbé, 2023).  However, there is ample evidence which shows the little relevance and autonomy that the EU holds. For example, when Moscow expressed its desire to negotiate and ‘talk’ about the developing crisis alongside the Ukraine border in 2021, it made it clear that it wanted to negotiate with the US, not the EU. This is an indication of the little relevance the EU held in the view of Russia regarding eastern European security which Borrell (2022) himself complained about. The bypassing of the Brussels in the ensuing discussions is precisely what occurred as Washington and Moscow negotiated between themselves (Veen and Langenberg, 2022). In fact, it was argued that the lack of unity between the EU member states is what prodded Russia to disregard the EU (Shapiro, 2022). This means that the EU did not have strategic autonomy to promote its interests because the Member States had not yet reached consensus. The EU was merely a spectator in the face of growing instability shortly before a major war in Ukraine (Olsen, 2022). This illustrates the irrelevance of the EU in security affairs as Russia deemed it to be too insignificant and incapable, to even include in discussions and negotiations about Russia’s primary security concerns which happened to directly include and affect EU interests. 

After Russia launched its war in February 2022, the EU and the US together sanctioned Russia showing a strong transatlantic relationship, but it was clear that the US was leading in the struggle against Russian efforts in Ukraine (Billon-Galland, Kundnani and Whitman, 2022). The EU was being led by the US, NATO, and the UK in areas of military support and economic sanctions. In addition, the EU sanctions on Russia also happened to be of serious detriment to the EU economy ultimately costing it over €1trillion (Bloomberg, 2022) and resulting in a huge rise in inflation in Europe. This was because of the economic interdependency and the reliance on Russia to supply a significant proportion of the EU’s energy needs, especially gas. The high level of EU dependency on Russian energy supply then prevented the EU from sanctioning Russia further due to further divisions between member states (Martin and di Mauro, 2022). This illustrates how the EU’s ability to act in a strategically autonomous fashion is not only impaired by its dependent relationship with the US but also by its relationship with other geopolitical powers like Russia. 

In relation to the US, the EU’s diversification drive in the energy sector saw it increase its dependence on the US which provided 50% of the EU’s LNG needs in 2022 (Lefebvre, 2023). This war and its consequences have brought about two order effects. The first is the transatlantic relationship is stronger, the second is that the EU’s strategic autonomy increases in cases where it is aligned with the US but decreases in instances where it is not. Overall, the EU has not made considerable progress in achieving strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US. Instead, it has merely increased its ability to counter Russia while decreasing its ability to diverge too far away from the US. Thus, the war in Ukraine has served US strategic interests in Europe far more than it has EU strategic interests and EU strategic autonomy has suffered significant setbacks. This is demonstrated by French President Macron’s visit to China where he argued that the EU must reduce its dependency on the US or risk becoming ‘vassals’ and being ‘caught up in crises’ that are not the EU’s (Anderlini and Caulcutt, 2023). While Macron words do not reflect the EU altogether, it underlines the extent to which the EU has not yet achieved strategic autonomy. 

Conclusion

To conclude, EU strategic autonomy is defined as the ability of the EU to; set its own priorities, opt for policies which best serve its interests and have the means to successfully achieve the objectives its sets out. The EU has made some progress in this regard but remains largely incapable of achieving its desired goals of being a strategically autonomous geopolitical actor. The JCPOA affair initially showed great promise and underlined the EU’s growing capabilities. But this illusion was ended when the US decided to change course and unilaterally withdrew from the agreements. The EU made considerable efforts to limit the damage that US policy was having on the EU’s reputation and its operational capacity, but it failed to do so. While the JCPOA never technically ended, it the practical senses, it failed miserably and the key EU interests in the problem are more threatened and more out of the EU’s hands than ever. The non-proliferation agreement remains threatened as Iran is now extremely close to having weapons-grade uranium. The security and stability of the middle east is threatened due to this development as the US and Israel are more likely to act unilaterally to work towards their own national interests. And the EU’s interest in defending multilateralism is weakened as the US withdrawal also demonstrated the limitations of multilateralism. 

The case of Ukraine demonstrated how the EU was side-lined and viewed as unimportant in negotiations regarding the Ukraine Crisis even as it escalated into all-out war. This related back to the ‘means’ and ‘capabilities’ aspect of strategic autonomy which the EU was perceived to not have despite the fact that the Ukraine problem directly affected EU interests. Furthermore, the economic interdependence of the EU towards Russia capped the EU’s ability to sanction Russia and in part resulted in a drive towards energy diversification which saw EU dependence on the US increase. The Biden administration’s initiative also saw the US lead the ‘west’ against Russia, further diminishing the EU’s strategic autonomy.  Ultimately, the EU’s dependence on the US has not significantly changed to the point where it is truly strategically autonomous and the two case studies cited have shown this extensively. In light of significant geopolitical shifts, the question of the EU’s capability to become a strategically autonomous actor remains uncertain.

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