European Sovereignty Without Strategic Autonomy

20 Jan 2021 12:51 PM


The European Union seeks more independence from US influence, but its members disagree on the best way forward for its own security.

During the Donald Trump presidency, Europeans were forced to do some soul searching resulting in the conclusion that, as German chancellor Angela Merkel famously put it, Europe must ‘take its destiny into its own hands’. In other words, become more independent of the United States.

But how exactly could Europe achieve this and in which aspects of their destiny? The debate has centred on two concepts: ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘European sovereignty’. Both are vague and, while they have been used interchangeably, they are distinct and emerged in response to two different aspects of the Trump administration’s policies.

The concept of strategic autonomy emerged in response to uncertainty created by the election of Trump about the long-held US security guarantee to Europe, focusing largely on defence policy and the future of NATO. It expresses the idea that Europe – usually but not always the European Union (EU) – should be less dependent on the United States for its security.

The idea of European sovereignty then emerged because of the tariffs on aluminium and steel imports imposed by the Trump administration on the EU and China, and the indirect impact on Europeans of new sanctions imposed on Iran in 2018 – which former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt criticized as a ‘massive attack’ on European sovereignty. Although a problematic term, it expresses the idea that Europe – in this case the EU – should also be more independent of the US on economic policy.

Click here to continue reading the full version of this Expert Comment on the Chatham House website.