by Jean-Paul Paloméros, General (ret), former Supreme Commander Transformation NATO (Norfolk), Paris
Not so long ago, discussing European strategic autonomy was considered by many as a non-starter. First and foremost because there was no consensus between EU members and therefore, they softened the language and, beating around the bush, used a more consensual approach by speaking diplomatically of EU sovereignty, without really defining what it meant. To paraphrase Albert Camus’ famous quote, today more than ever “to misname things is to add to the misfortunes of Europe”. Therefore, on the contrary, in the context of the recent Covid-19 pandemic and an even more major conflict in Ukraine, it’s time for the EU to set without delay its strategic autonomy as a common, crucial, and existential objective, whether to face Russia’s challenges in the present or shape Europe’s future security.
Autonomy doesn’t mean autarky
To make it clear, there mustn’t be any misunderstanding: autonomy doesn’t mean autarky. It is for Europe to choose the dependency level it is prepared to accept in different key domains and to select reliable allies and partners ready to build this enduring strategic interdependency together. As far as European strategic autonomy is concerned, whatever perimeter one could consider to define it, it obviously involves defence and security almost as a prerequisite, at least as a major component, however certainly not the only one. To name the other main pillars of this strategic autonomy intimately linked with defence and security, energy comes at once, alongside digital transformation and cybersecurity, space, critical raw materials, omnipresent microprocessors, health, research, technology and innovation, industry, not forgetting skilled human resources. Consequently, the two main questions to be answered by EU Member States concern first and foremost their common will and ability to reach a suitable degree of strategic autonomy in those domains, and secondly the level of dependency they accept with selected allies and partners. In terms of defence and security, for more than seven decades, NATO has been the masterpiece of the European security architecture, able to stop Stalin’s USSR push to the west in the early fifties, to prevent the resurgence of major conflict with the USSR, then Russia, and to provide a stable and secure environment for EU development and prosperity. Today among NATO’s 30 members, 21 belong to the EU and see NATO as the ultimate watchkeeper of their collective defence. Therefore, at least in the medium term, any future European strategic autonomy should be coherent with the Atlantic Alliance’s commitment. Besides, as written in article 2 of the enduring North Atlantic 1949 treaty, member states “will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them”. It proves that the forward-looking founding fathers of NATO had perfectly understood that it was not possible to dissociate economy, defence and security. This is perfectly in line with the building of European strategic autonomy in full concert with other NATO allies, including the US.
“One for all, all for one”
Today, in light of Russian aggression against an independent European country on EU and NATO borders, most of our attention is focused for good reasons on the crucial NATO treaty article 5, which defines the Alliance collective defence commitment, the famous mousquetaire clause “one for all, all for one”. Two main conclusions can be drawn from the current situation. First, as was the case through the whole cold war, US contribution to NATO’s credible collective defence is still overwhelming. Obviously, the US military forces are second to none on the planet, they bring with them unique operational capability such as Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missiles (ATBM), global Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, multiple types of drones, and a unique joint fire power. In addition, the US gives NATO its nuclear dimension. Under a special double key agreement, the US provides B61 gravity nuclear bombs to a few NATO members who commit dual role fighter aircraft to carry out NATO’s nuclear deterrence.
The question of nuclear deterrence
It is to be noticed that among the 30 NATO members, none has signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which came into force at the beginning of 2021. This is not the case of the EU, where 3 countries – Austria, Ireland and Malta – have ratified the TPNW, meaning that no consensus can be reached within the EU on the potential role of nuclear deterrence as part of a future EU strategic autonomy. Considering the current geostrategic context, this is a clear limitation to the EU’s strategic ambitions. After Brexit, France remains the only EU nuclear power and there is no sign that the question of extending the umbrella of French nuclear deterrence to other EU members will be raised in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, according to article 42.7 of the Lisbon treaty, “if a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power”, which could be interpreted as the EU version of NATO’s article 5. However, though Russian aggression against Ukraine comes with the potential risk of affecting eastern European nations, we have not heard any voice invoke the possibility of putting into force the Lisbon treaty article 42.7 if EU/non-NATO nations such as Finland or Sweden were to be threatened.
Towards a new security framework for Europe
This is not to say the EU’s strategic autonomy is a non-starter, but rather that it should be thought through in deep cooperation with NATO. The 21 common EU/NATO members can be the leaders of an ambitious NATO/EU cooperation, if they act together. That initiative could cover a wide range of domains which are crucial in the current context. For instance, the true information battle which is raging on a day-to-day basis about the Ukrainian conflict should be fought in common by the two organisations, to bring tangible evidence to a wider public and to diffuse the most sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Cyberdefence is another field of choice for this cooperation. NATO and the EU can reinforce each other by developing a common cyber threat assessment, by working together on cyber resilience, by offering joint cyber expert teams to their members, by jointly attributing main cyber-attacks. Space is another great example of potential enhanced cooperation.
For the last two decades, the architecture for peace and security in Europe has eroded and many treaties and agreements put in place in the wake of the 1975 Helsinki accords have been trampled by Putin’s aggressiveness. The war against Ukraine can be considered as the last step in that direction. For EU and NATO member states, rebuilding a new security framework in Europe will need to show collective commitment and solidarity. EU countries will need to first assume their full responsibility in NATO collective defence and regain a suitable level of autonomy to reduce their dependency in strategic domains such as energy, digital transformation, health, R&T and innovation. Only a strong and ambitious Europe will be able to reclaim the keys to its destiny. It is the price to pay to build a peaceful future for new generations and to pass on this wonderful legacy built with blood and tears by our ancestors, our freedom.
Jean-Paul Paloméros, Gen (ret)
is a retired French Air Force General who qualified as a fighter pilot in 1976 and graduated from the UK Royal Air Force Staff College, Bracknell, in 1993. He acquired experience both as a fighter pilot and commander in operations. General Paloméros led the French Air Force’s Plans and Programme Division and served as Head of the Air Force from 2009 to 2012, before he was appointed by NATO as its Supreme Allied Commander Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, where he served until 2015.