13 Oct 21. The European strategic context is changing, and transformation may be driven either by strategic shocks, or an aggregation of more modest changes. Within this shift, the UK faces fundamental choices about its future role as a European security actor. European security is at an inflection point. The European security environment is more complex and demanding than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Europe is coming to terms with new challenges such as the rise of China, energy security, the climate crisis, election interference and cyber vulnerability, while perennial ones such as Russia, border security, migration and defence burden-sharing remain unresolved. The US commitment to European security is being increasingly questioned, as is the significance of Europe as a global actor. The European strategic environment is changing and uncertain, and may look very different in the next decade.
The 2020s and 2030s will be a critical time for the security and prosperity of Europe and the UK, as the Euro-Atlantic area plots its recovery following a period of crisis. Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency and the coronavirus pandemic have all radically tested transatlantic and European cohesion.
For the UK, recent policymaking has been dominated by Brexit and the pandemic, against a backdrop of political turmoil – there have been four governments, three general elections and two divisive referenda within just seven years. The UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in March 2021 reflected a much-trumpeted ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific. But it also declared that ‘The Euro-Atlantic region will remain critical to the UK’s security and prosperity’ and that ‘Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK’. The Review described the UK as a ‘European country with global interests’ and committed the country to being ‘the greatest single contributor to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area to 2030’. But it had little to say about the UK’s defence and security relationship with the EU, perhaps linked to the ongoing EU–UK Free Trade Agreement negotiations. UK ministers have been conspicuously silent on the issue, but perhaps the detail will be forthcoming.
Significant progress in European security requires political stars to align – achieving agreement between at least two of the three leaders in Berlin, London and Paris, along with a supportive president in the White House. Each needs to invest significant political will – often personally – to surmount obstacles and achieve consensus, as occurred in 1998, when then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac put in place the foundations of what is now the EU Common Security and Defence Policy, a sea change for UK policy at the time. The prospects for such political alignment seem remote in the near term.
We could be experiencing a transition to a post-European security agenda as the continent becomes less of a focus for global power politics than in previous centuries
Moreover, European security is no longer just about the ‘big three’. Other European countries with strong defence and security pedigrees are finding ways to make their collective voices heard, whether it is by blocking the Franco-German proposal for an EU–Russia Summit or tempering French pushes for strategic autonomy.
Transformation can take many forms and does not necessarily require a single vision or one macro shift. The aggregation of smaller adaptions and developments can combine to produce a transformative outcome. Moreover, we could be experiencing a transition to a post-European security agenda as the continent becomes less of a focus for global power politics than in previous centuries.
Geopolitical Shifts Affecting the Continent
Several geopolitical developments have the potential to transform the contemporary European security environment.
The return of great power competition has pushed the US to accelerate its pivot to the Indo-Pacific in order to respond to and manage the rise of China. Individual European countries are reinforcing this pivot, but it is a stark reminder that Washington’s focus will be elsewhere over the coming decades. Europe, too, is grappling with the implications of China’s rise: opportunity, threat, challenge – or all three?
The political and administrative fallout from Brexit continues to consume policymaking capacity in London and serve as a distraction in Brussels. Moreover, there is the threat of further political fragmentation across the continent. Indeed, there are threats to the Unions on both sides of the English Channel.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan highlighted both the inability to agree on an effective contingency plan and the stark military capability gaps between the US and Europe
Russia presents an ongoing threat, as it continues to adapt from conventional and nuclear and towards an increasing use of sub-threshold methods to achieve political and strategic outcomes. Russia is an actor in unresolved conflicts around the European periphery, moving closer to China economically and militarily, and becoming more competitive in key regions for Europe, including Africa.
Global Events Continue to Impact Europe
As the climate of Europe’s geostrategic position changes, world events are making the weather.
The US, NATO and Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 was a double shock for Europe. First, the US decision to withdraw was effectively made unilaterally, providing European NATO members with limited options, and highlighted both the inability to agree on an effective contingency plan and the stark military capability gaps between the US and Europe. Second, the chaotic evacuation operation was largely avoidable and an inglorious end to NATO’s first significant out-of-area operation, which culminated in strategic failure.
The September 2021 announcement of the formation of AUKUS – a defence pact between Australia, the UK and the US – provoked an initially furious French response, which demonstrated how much the UK and US misunderstood or did not care about French strategic interests and culture, with the latter’s foreign minister describing the pact as ‘a stab in the back’. However, other European capitals were notably silent.
Following these events, President Emmanuel Macron said Europe should stop being ‘naïve’ about the US, demonstrate renewed solidarity and take care of its own protection. The post-AUKUS rapprochement call between Presidents Joe Biden and Macron has opened the door for greater shifts on European security, with the leaders’ joint statement underlining that ‘The US also recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO’. Deciding exactly what this means in practice and reconciling the US and French views of European strategic autonomy so as to provide mutual strength to the Euro-Atlantic alliance will now be critical, as the West seeks more equal grand strategic burden-sharing to counter China and Russia in multiple regions.
European Responses to Change
Europe has already started its transformation in response to this shifting environment, following the shocks of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Brexit referendum in 2016. The Co-ordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD 2016), Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO 2017) and European Intervention Initiative (EI2 2018) are all examples of new approaches to manoeuvre through a thick institutional architecture and introduce flexibility. Significantly, EU initiatives are starting to introduce opt-in, opt-out arrangements, so that non-EU members can join specific initiatives when it suits. This adaption has already led to two significant deployments: Task Force Takuba in Mali and the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) mission in the Gulf. These formative ad hoc deployments seek to demonstrate the potential for further European autonomy.
There will soon be new political calculations to be made on strategic topics such as the character of European defence and relations with Russia – and some new people making them
2022 will be a significant year for the evolution of European security for a number of reasons: France will hold the rotating EU Council presidency for the first six months; the EU’s Strategic Compass – its common threat analysis – will report its findings; a new EU–NATO joint declaration will be signed; and a European Defence Summit will be held. Moreover, Germany will have a new chancellor – and likely different parties in power – for the first time in 16 years, and France will also go to the polls. Hence, there will be new political calculations to be made on strategic topics such as the character of European defence and relations with Russia – and some new people making them.
The key item on the agenda will certainly be ‘European Strategic Autonomy’, what it actually means and whether it will be complementary to or competing with NATO – focusing on collective defence or crisis management. Speaking at the presentation of the Charlemagne Prize to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on 2 October, European Council President Charles Michel sought to shape this debate, declaring 2022 to be the ‘year of European defence’. He further framed this in terms that would soothe Atlanticists: the first pillar of European autonomy would be economic and social; the second, security, would have the Atlantic alliance as its ‘backbone’. Michel looked forward to the next EU–NATO Summit in March 2022 as an opportunity to reaffirm the strategic partnership between the two organisations. Europe has been here many times before and, rhetoric aside, it is uncertain whether this time will be any different.
What Does All This Mean for the UK?
How European strategic autonomy works out in practice will impact UK national security. Of greater significance, however, will be the strategic choices facing the UK itself as a European security actor as it starts to implement its Global Britain vision, which go far beyond the particulars of UK–EU security cooperation. These choices will crystallise as perceptions of the UK’s national interest continue to evolve following Brexit.
While now outside the EU and its myriad institutions and layers, the UK still has other levers of influence and other partners to leverage. Of immediate concern should be exactly how the UK will craft a network of security and defence partnerships – bilaterally and through multilateral organisations, alongside emerging ad hoc formats – to tackle the evolving threats affecting the European continent. This, after all, remains the UK’s neighbourhood.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.