Strategic Autonomy: Where Does The Franco-German “Couple” Stand?
By Laurent Charbonneau, June 25th 2023
Faced with a resurgence of power dynamics and conflict on the Old Continent, a reassessment of the geopolitical posture of the European Union (EU) has become imperative for its 27 member states. In this time of Zeitenwende, the concept of strategic autonomy has come to dominate discussions about the way the EU should respond to contemporary security challenges. Serving as both a framework for reflection and an industrial-political program, this divisive concept fuels the fears of some states as much as the geopolitical ambitions of others.
Although France has employed this concept at various levels for several years (even decades, if we consider formulations such as “Europe of Defence” (Europe de la Défense in French) or the ESDU, the “European Security and Defense Union”), it nonetheless faces resistance in several member states, particularly its German neighbour. Oppositions of a semantic, sometimes ideological or practical nature, the Franco-German couple does not always share the same vision of its promotion. Among these divergences, the opposition between Atlanticism and Europeanism, and the role of NATO, never fail to fuel the debate. Added to this is the difficulty of Europeanizing national interests. Given these factors as well as their role as driving forces within the EU, can France and Germany yet harmonize their visions of a European strategic autonomy, and thus lead the EU to adapt to the realities of the 21st century?
Far less recent than some might think, the relevance of this concept was confirmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the war in Ukraine, which led to Europe's “geopolitical awakening”. Drawing on interviews and research, as well as discussions at the Franco-German seminar on European and transatlantic security architecture held in 2022, this article explores how France and Germany approach European strategic autonomy through the following angles: the history and recent salience of the concept (1), debates on the relationship with NATO (2), and the implementation and operationalization of strategic autonomy as an illustration of Franco-German divergences (3).
1.The Resurgence of an Old Idea
Back to the Future: European strategic autonomy, Europe’s Phoenix
Taking into account its varied terminology, the idea of strategic autonomy has been present on the European continent for several years, even decades. Initially driven by the fear of US disengagement from Europe, it was explicitly stated as an objective to be pursued by the Franco-British declaration of Saint-Malo in 1998: “To this end, the Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises”. Although this summit led indirectly to the European Security and Defense Policy in 2001, the ambition of a European Union capable of autonomous military intervention outside its borders seemed at the time limited to the only two states with significant force projection capabilities, namely France and the United Kingdom.
The realization of a continued strong dependence on the United States from 2008 to 2016 (whether during the crises in Libya and Syria, against Daesh or during the war in Georgia) - despite the advances made in the early 2000s - coupled with Russia's annexation of Crimea finally led the EU to include this concept in its 2016 Global Strategy: “An appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy is important if Europe is to promote peace and security within and beyond its borders”. Strategic autonomy is then explicitly named and defined as the ability to act autonomously without compromising the possibility of cooperating with other players, or even, on the contrary, strengthening the EU's ability to cooperate with its partners. The following year, Emmanuel Macron further promoted this idea in his speech at the Sorbonne, albeit without generating much enthusiasm among his European counterparts.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the concept of strategic autonomy back to the forefront, this time from a new perspective. Indeed, in a context of European dependence on autocratic regimes - notably China - intense competition for critical goods such as medical supplies led to enmity between member states, as well as soaring prices which, some argue, could have been avoided if more coordination had taken place. The subsequent involvement of the European Commission in the joint procurement of vaccines helped to avoid these issues and demonstrated the value-added of a collective approach to the production, supply, research and regulation of these products in times of crisis. Thus, strategic autonomy emerged naturally and de facto as a relevant and necessary solution to contemporary challenges and growing geopolitical tensions, often characterized by the weaponization of interdependencies. Its scope, previously confined to the field of defence, broadened. In addition to capabilities that enable the EU to act, anything that frees it from critical dependencies and enables it to operate without external constraints is now considered a contributor to Europe’s strategic autonomy. This episode also demonstrated the ability of member states to unite in times of emergency and to adapt the EU's powers when necessary.
Lastly, the conflict in Ukraine since winter 2022 marks the latest evolution in the concept of strategic autonomy. While both the war and the debate around this concept are still very much alive, at no time since the Saint-Malo summit has there been so much discussion around European strategic autonomy and its various components. Inspired by the developments and observations of the last twenty years, the EU and its member states are now attempting to promote, at times explicitly and at others implicitly, the idea that the EU must adapt in order to free itself from its dependencies and invest in its means of action.
The War in Ukraine: The Awakening of European Strategic Autonomy
While the Americans were vainly alerting international opinion to the imminent invasion on February 24, 2022, Europeans woke up to the reality that conventional interstate warfare was back on the continent. Faced with the illegality of this aggression, and the violations of human rights and the Budapest Memoranda, the European response organized itself quickly and strongly, maintaining a certain level of unity to this day, at both the supranational and intergovernmental levels. Indeed, the EU has so far succeeded in adopting eleven packages of sanctions against Russia, covering a substantial part of its economy and revenues. It has also created a sanctions regime targeting Russian, Belarusian and even Iranian individuals and entities, while coordinating major humanitarian aid and arms deliveries.
In the same perspective, the unlocking of two billion euros to finance the transfer of ammunition to Ukraine from national stockpiles, as well as joint purchases from industrial manufacturers through the European Peace Facility (EPF) - an intergovernmental instrument - represents a significant step forward in the EU's involvement in the defence field. Adopted just a year before this decision was taken, Pierre Haroche notes the progress made in such a short period, considering that a number of states were opposed to the EPF, arguing that it ran counter to the peace project that the EU represents.
However, the war in Ukraine revealed the weaknesses of Europe's armies and defence industries. While the Europeans gradually delivered more and more weapons - progressively heavier and more lethal - the conflict nevertheless exposed the anemic level of their weapons reserves and the low production capacity of their industries. The EU's objective of supplying one million rounds of ammunition, which it describes as an ambitious project, risks being rapidly depleted, given that Ukraine consumes over 5,000 shells a day. This large-scale aid could be exhausted in barely six months, or even less if the war escalates further.
Faced with the realization that European factories are unable to meet the demands of high-intensity warfare, the European Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, has been visiting European defence manufacturers for several months with the aim of increasing production of heavy-caliber ammunition. His desire to motivate EU industries to boost production demonstrates the European Commission's determination to use its industrial leverage to promote a Europe of defence.
The negotiations surrounding the delivery of battle tanks to Ukraine, however, represent an unusual situation for European leadership in providing assistance to Ukraine. Given its strategic culture, one might have expected France - initially criticized at the start of the war for its low level of military aid to Ukraine, but a great promoter of a Europe of defence - to take the lead in battle tanks donations by sending Leclerc tanks to Ukraine. However, it was Germany, not without pressure from its allies, that first agreed to deliver heavy tanks. Given Germany's reservations at the start of the war about delivering lethal weapons, and its strategic culture, it is surprising that Germany assumed this leadership role, while France, with its great ambitions for Europe, has not yet declared its intention to send Leclercs, and has contented itself with sending “light tanks” of the AMX-10 type. While it's understandable that the availability of Leopard-2 tanks on the European continent makes it an interesting model to provide Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States followed suit, delivering units of their own national models, the Challenger and Abrams respectively. However, France had several interests in delivering examples of its tanks, not least because their use in the field could have revitalized exports of this model, thereby restarting assembly lines. This would also have allowed France to reaffirm its leadership in European defence and demonstrated its support for Ukraine. If Paris wishes to demonstrate its leadership and promote its vision of European strategic autonomy, it should take note of the criticisms directed at it regarding its limited military support for Ukraine. According to the Kiel Institute, France was only the 13th largest donor of military aid to Ukraine as of June 6, 2023.
In summary, the notion of European strategic autonomy has evolved over the decades to become a crucial topic of discussion in the contemporary context. Initially focused on the EU’s military defence capabilities, its relevance was reaffirmed and its definition broadened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The war in Ukraine also revealed the weaknesses of European armies and the continent's defence industry. Furthermore, while the EU is reacting strongly in support of Ukraine, the negotiations surrounding the delivery of battle tanks to Ukraine have highlighted inconsistencies in European leadership. Despite these challenges, the EU and its member states are seeking to promote a Europe of defence and free themselves from critical dependencies. The question of Europe's strategic autonomy thus remains relevant, with ongoing discussions to strengthen defence capabilities and increase cooperation within the EU.
2.European Strategic Autonomy and NATO: False Brothers, True Friends?
The ambiguous and divergent relationship between the Franco-German “couple” and the United States and NATO
The importance of NATO for the defence of Europe and its relations with the United States have sometimes been perceived as obstacles to the development of a strong European defence. However, the relevance of NATO and the transatlantic link has been reaffirmed by the essential assistance provided by the United States to Ukraine, as well as by the strengthening of deterrence measures on the Organization's eastern borders. Consequently, it remains essential to analyze the question of this possible obstacle, given the current attraction towards strengthening European strategic autonomy.
The Franco-German partnership has often been divided on the question of NATO's role in European security. France is still “independent” of the alliance in terms of nuclear matters (refusing to participate in the Organization's Nuclear Planning Group), notably for reasons of strategic sovereignty and the strengthening of European defence outside the alliance. On the German side, the question of American protection as a pillar of European security has only recently arisen, not least because of the Brexit and former US President Donald Trump's comments on a possible US withdrawal from NATO. While Germany may not be as Atlanticist as Eastern European countries, its strategic culture certainly remains rooted in the Organization. However, should Europeanism and Atlanticism necessarily be seen as contradictory?
While this has often been asserted, there seems to have been a constructive evolution in this discourse in recent years. Indeed, this opposition seemed to be based on a persistent misunderstanding. On the one hand, Berlin feared that strategic autonomy would replace NATO and the United States as the guarantors of European security; while on the other, France argued that only with a strong European defence could the EU convince the United States that it was a reliable ally. However, in recent times, the two sides seem to have come closer together. While Emmanuel Macron declared on May 31, 2023, that “a European pillar within NATO is essential”, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had a few days earlier promoted the idea of a geopolitical European Union, referring in particular to his 2022 proposal for better European integration of member states' industrial and operational efforts. Thus, the idea of strengthening European defence no longer seems to be perceived as a zero-sum game with NATO, but increasingly as an asset for both Europe and NATO.
Finally, the war in Ukraine and Russia's energy blackmail have also helped clarify this debate. It is certain that the limits of European aid and the reaffirmed dependence on the American ally for Europe's security have once again raised fears of a potential decoupling from the United States. However, Russia's manipulation of gas flows to Europe, aimed at weakening the continent, and Europe’s response through the REPowerEU plan exemplified how, as Pascal Boniface put it, European strategic autonomy “is not opposed to the Alliance, but to dependence”. The dynamism with which the EU has reacted, notably by the strengthening its defence industry, the reduction of its energy dependence on Russia, and the adoption of the Strategic Compass a few weeks after the start of the invasion, demonstrates that European cooperation does not necessarily lead transatlantic dissension. On the contrary, an increasingly annoyed United States with the bill for aid to Ukraine, could take a dim view of a Europe that fails to mobilize its resources for the defence of its own continent.
Towards an Asserted Complementarity Between the EU and NATO
The war in Ukraine has also put the respective areas of competence of the EU and NATO to the test and exposed their complementarity.
NATO has shown remarkable dynamism in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, reaffirming its relevance. Firstly, it appears that Article 5 and its nuclear deterrence are still taken seriously by Russia, which, despite its nuclear blackmail and numerous threats of retaliation, still refrains from posing any real threat to NATO's borders. Secondly, the enlargement of the NATO community with the application of Sweden and the accession of Finland demonstrates the continued attractiveness of the alliance. What's more, French President Emmanuel Macron, who had declared NATO “brain-dead” in 2019, reversed its stand on the matter in May 2023, claiming that “Vladimir Putin has woken it up with the worst of electric shocks” while expressing gratitude to the United States for its involvement in supporting Ukraine. Lastly, the increased presence of the Allies on the Eastern Front highlights their ongoing solidarity.
For its part, the unity of the EU has enabled it to adopt unprecedented measures, including the reduction and diversification of its oil and gas imports, while providing strong humanitarian, financial, logistical and military support to Ukraine. The granting of candidate status on June 23, 2022, has also been swift, and is already beginning to materialize, notably with the country's integration into the EU's free-roaming area.
The EU and NATO have thus demonstrated their complementarity in managing the crisis in Ukraine. While NATO has reinforced its military credibility and solidarity, the EU has confirmed its ability to act swiftly in support of Ukraine. More broadly, the conflict has highlighted the need for strategic autonomy, which has not proved detrimental to transatlantic relations. Recent developments in Franco-German discourse further indicates a convergence of views on this concept.
3.The Implementation of a European Strategic Autonomy by Paris and Berlin, a Subject of Rapprochement and Divergence Between the Two Capitals
The EU's two most powerful states share a long, sometimes tumultuous history, punctuated by often constructive divergences for the Union. The term commonly used in French to describe this relationship, the Franco-German “couple”, is quickly transformed into the Franco-German “motor” when we switch to the language of Goethe: the role of the relationship for the EU is acknowledged, but perhaps less similarly its nature.
Without going into detail about the historical differences between France and Germany on defence matters, it's worth remembering that the idea of a European strategic autonomy and its Franco-German discord are not new. In 2021, Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer, then German Minister of Defense, stated that the main source of divergence between her country and France was that they did not understand the concept of strategic autonomy in the same way.
From Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle to the present day, the question has often been whether autonomy means independence from the USA and NATO, or rather sovereignty - a concept more readily accepted in Germany. France's move away from NATO under de Gaulle was indeed a source of concern for Germany, which was then torn between anchoring itself to the West and opening up to the East. However, the rapprochement between France and NATO that began in 1996, and the acceptance of a European pillar within NATO rather than a European defence outside of NATO, have brought the previously opposed visions of the Franco-German couple closer together.
Furthermore, France seems to have taken note of the semantic confusion and negative connotations associated with the concept of strategic autonomy. Without abandoning it, the recent emphasis on freedom of action and the need to free from dependence resonates better with its German counterpart in the current context. The inclusion of “strategic sovereignty” as a foreign policy priority in the coalition agreement of the German government in 2021 attests to Germany's new openness in this regard. However, differences and ambiguities remain, whether it be in the institutional frameworks developed by Paris and Berlin, the question of nuclear deterrence, or defence industry, all of which being key to European strategic autonomy.
Articulating a Europe Capable of Defending Itself
France and Germany share an appetite for European multilateralism in the field of defence, and in recent years these two countries have given concrete expression to this interest through various political initiatives, which address their specific interests or represent common ground between them.
The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) currently serves as a platform for EU-wide capability development on a voluntary basis. However, while France sought to create a platform for power projection for a limited number of member states ready to intervene internationally, particularly in areas where it is engaged, Germany has pushed for an inclusive PESCO leading to greater European integration. Today, PESCO serves a vehicle for the development of European defence, but lacks, in France's view, a genuine operational component.
The European Intervention Initiative (EII) emerged in response to this shortcoming, meeting France's demand for flexible cooperation between “willing and able” members. Although the EII operates outside the EU, thereby preventing Germany from participating militarily due to the absence of a multilateral framework - a criterion enshrined in its constitution - the country has nonetheless provided political support to the EII. For France's, the EII complements PESCO by its ability to conduct operations outside the institutional frameworks of the EU and NATO.
For its part, Germany, true to its Atlanticist culture, has led NATO to adopt the “framework nation concept”, aiming to encourage greater military cooperation between European states within NATO, but on a voluntary basis. Through this concept, Germany acts as the framework nation of a group that it primarily directs towards territorial defence, a strategic priority for Germany. This interest contrasts with that of other groupings created under the “framework nation concept”, which focus on the development of intervention forces beyond Europe and are led by the United Kingdom and Italy.
While France promotes an ambitious geopolitical vision of Europe, Germany prioritizes the strengthening of European ties within NATO. Thus, while both France and Germany have contributed to structuring a more institutionally integrated European defence, their recent moves reveal divergences in their visions of a Europe more capable of ensuring its own defence, and the political framework within which it should operate.
A Nuclear Europe of defence?
At the operational level, the nuclear component of strategic autonomy remains a sensitive issue between France and Germany. The latter is keen to distance itself from nuclear energy, both civil and military, and is caught between an anti-nuclear movement and the need for a NATO nuclear deterrence. France, for its part, is still trying to convince Europe, and Germany in particular, of the contribution its nuclear arsenal, separate from NATO, can make to the continent's security.
In this regard, before any progress can be made, Germany will need to reconcile its positions on the possession of nuclear weapons, and regain an understanding of the “strategic grammar” surrounding them. For its part, France will have to demonstrate that a European strategic autonomy relying on its nuclear umbrella would be in the Union's interest and not simply a strategy to increase its influence over the EU. At the same time, it will have to reconcile the opposition that may exist between the direct management of the French military apparatus by the President and the possible co-participation of European states. Indeed, one of France's strengths in the military domain lies in the concentration of power in the hands of its President, and hence in the credibility of its decision-making chain. It will therefore be crucial to consider its rearticulation if European participation is to involve some form of shared management or co-determination of nuclear strategy.
While NATO “will remain a nuclear alliance” and will continue to benefit European Allies, a European strategic autonomy based on a distinctly European nuclear deterrence would undoubtedly enhance the EU's ability to act outside the alliance framework. Although this issue is not central to current discussions on strategic autonomy, a common position will eventually need to be found.
The Industry: the Crux of War
Beyond the semantic debates on strategic autonomy and the political dissensions or rapprochements this may have caused, the economic and strategic interests of member states in their military-industrial complex remain important factors in political decisions.
Unlike the United States, no European industrial base in the armaments sector is large enough to sustain itself without exporting. In addition to this, intra-European rivalries caused by the great fragmentation of this sector at the European level further complicate matters. States, which are the main clients of these industries, thus do not benefit from the economies of scale and interoperability of equipment that a consolidated sector like the United States provides.
Moreover, the defence industry plays an important role in the economies of France and Germany, not least because it represents a major employer, a source of innovation, and has a positive impact on the trade balance of both countries. While there is a shared interest in developing this sector through cooperation, a declared objective of both countries, researchers Ronja Kempin and Barbara Kunz point out that they do not see it in the same way. While France identifies the defence industry as an essential component of French and, since 2017, European strategic autonomy, Germany sees it primarily as a technological asset for its economy. France's strategic vision thus opposes Germany's more commercial one, leading to difficulties in cooperating, particularly regarding export rules or the sharing of tasks and technologies as demonstrated by the FCAS (Future Combat Air System) project. A resolution of these issues, for example through the adoption of common export rules and a shared strategic vision of industrial needs, would thus be beneficial to the deepening of armaments industrial cooperation.
However, as strengthening relations with the United States is a foreign policy objective for several member states, procurement decisions are sometimes taken on a political basis, to the detriment of European industry. Poland's decision to acquire 32 American F-35 fighter jets in 2020, without any industrial compensation, is an example of this, as is Germany's decision to buy 35 units of the same model in 2022, despite its participation in the Franco-German-Spanish FCAS project. This move by Germany, although it can be justified given its role in nuclear sharing within NATO, did not fail to send the wrong signal across the Rhine: a French Senate report in 2020 hoped that “building the SCAF cooperatively [would] ensure, at the very least, that participants in the project will buy it rather than competing American products, in this case the F35 and its possible future variants”.
Furthermore, the creation of a European defence industry does not conflict with the interests of the United States. Although it does benefit from Europe's armaments dependence, the US’s main interest in Europe remains the development of its own defence capabilities. The production of military capabilities in Europe would also not compromise the need to remain interoperable with NATO.
In short, the defence industry plays an essential role in the political decisions of member states, as it represents a major economic and strategic challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic had already demonstrated the industry's crucial role in achieving strategic autonomy, and the challenges related to assisting Ukrainian forces have reaffirmed this reality in the military sphere. Despite diverging interests, defence industrial cooperation between France and Germany, in particular, is a pragmatic starting point for shaping the future of European defence. As the foundation on which European strategic autonomy should be built, a strong European industry would support the operational dimension of this strategic autonomy while gradually freeing the EU from its industrial and commercial dependencies.
The recent momentum given to the idea of strategic autonomy once again highlights the persistent divergences between France and Germany. While the debate on the link between this autonomy and NATO now seems to be a thing of the past, Berlin and Paris have different approaches to the question of the political framework within which a Europe better able to defend itself should be deployed, and to its implementation in areas such as nuclear power and industry. These divergences certainly extend beyond these issues and are far from being resolved. However, the war in Ukraine has sparked serious discussions about the future of European defence.
While the EU is now concentrating on the defence of Ukraine, its urgent needs and the security of its Eastern borders, other security challenges remain and must be considered: China maintains its hegemonic ambitions in Asia and its desire to bring Taiwan back under its authority; the United States will continue its pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region; and instabilities on the African continent show no signs of diminishing, particularly with climate change and food insecurity that could result from the war in Ukraine. Against this backdrop, it is imperative that France and Germany continue and intensify their collaboration in the field of defence, particularly by strengthening the EU's tools and adopting a common vision for the future of its defence. As Camille Brugier and Pierre Haroche have emphasized, “By broadening the focus, it is clear that European strategic autonomy is not dead; it is more vital than ever”.
Laurent Charbonneau is a master’s student in political science at the Université de Montréal. Specializing in security issues and defence cooperation in the European context, he has worked in the political section of the Canadian Mission to the European Union and will soon be joining NATO’s Strategic Foresight Branch. His research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies (CCGES), and the Jean Monnet Center Montréal (JMCM).