European strategic sovereignty means that our European agenda must become part of the new transatlantic partnership. It certainly does not mean the end – or even a weakening – of our close partnership and friendship with the United States.
Debating “strategic autonomy” or “strategic sovereignty” is “toxic quibble”, wrote Claudia Major and Christian Mölling in their review of the public debate over the European Union’s global role. But, no, this is not an abstract matter of semantics – it is the way that political actors try to conceal deep, substantial differences and their consequences. In the German political world, there are indeed real differences. Some, without saying it openly, distrust France more than they do the US.
European strategic sovereignty – if and when it becomes a reality – may or may not have a French touch, but it will not be French sovereignty. But to dismiss France’s proposals as mere illusions, while holding up the NATO target of spending 2 per cent of GDO on defence as the silver bullet to revitalise the transatlantic relationship, shows a remarkable lack of understanding of what’s at stake.
So, when we talk about strategic sovereignty, there is a consensus that a good transatlanticist is prepared to do more for European security. We know that, for the foreseeable future, we Europeans cannot and will not want to forgo US capabilities in the military realm. When talking about European strategic sovereignty, we mean the capacity and ability to act to achieve jointly defined goals. European strategic sovereignty should not be understood as the longing for autarky, self-sufficiency, and or isolationism.
European strategic sovereignty means the capacity to preserve and foster human rights, liberal democracy, multilateralism, and a social and green market economy in an interdependent and complex world. Thus, strategic sovereignty and multilateral cooperation are inseparable. Strategic sovereignty means more than just resilience, or reducing the vulnerability created by global interdependence.
Intensifying European cooperation to achieve strategic sovereignty means admitting to and embracing our interdependencies in and outside Europe, and reducing and diversifying them where possible and where needed. This cannot remain just an exercise in political science; we need concrete common political steps to propose a coherent forward-leaning European transatlantic agenda to US President-elect Joe Biden.
European sovereignty will need to address five dimensions: climate, defence, digital, economic and financial affairs, and health.
On European defence, there is no need for national spending targets. We should agree on what to use our money for: we have to define our foreign policy priorities and goals! We need to outline where and in what circumstances we can, want, and need to act. We have to address this ourselves – as well as with our indispensable partner, the US – before creating suitable capabilities in Europe. This starts by providing the appropriate political support to two major Franco-German projects, the Future Combat Air System and the Main Ground Combat System. It involves freeing up the necessary planning capacities at the participating ministries of defence and not allowing the lack of consolidation in the German defence industry to jeopardise these projects.
Economic and financial affairs
We should strengthen the euro as an international lending currency, to give Europe more leverage and weight in foreign policy matters. If we fail to do this, we could not complain if a future US president cancelled an Iran agreement or enforced its policies by leveraging the US dollar. The euro needs a European Monetary Fund and its own budget for stabilisation and investment. For Germany, this is an unpleasant debate because it challenges the belief that it is possible to keep the euro without entering into a deepened economic and monetary union.
In the twenty-first century, Europe’s sovereignty will also be decided digitally. For the development of know-how on 5G, 6G, and so on, Europe should rely on its own IT companies, such as Ericsson and Nokia, and on small and medium-sized European providers to secure future technologies. The EU should pursue its own path of digitisation, with high data protection and open sources. We should be open to a partnership with the US to adequately regulate data giants such as Facebook and Google – and to thereby set common standards.
In the health sector – not just when fighting the coronavirus pandemic – we need, at the European level, to coordinate the production of medical equipment and to diversify our supply chains to overcome our dependencies on single sources (countries). We need a European early warning system, a common register of intensive care beds, and, in border regions, task forces for cross-border testing and tracking. For this, we should consult with the Biden administration and its council of experts. US-German cooperation between Biontech and Pfizer is a shining example of what is possible.
Climate policy is an important aspect of strategic sovereignty. On the one hand, it is a matter of keeping in Europe technologies that are needed to achieve our climate targets, such as storage facilities. We should use the European recovery fund to invest in European energy and rail networks, the modernisation of buildings, rooftop solar cells, storage technologies, and green hydropower. On the other hand, we have an obligation to provide the Global South with technologies and financial support for transformation and adaptation. And, if only for our own peace, we need to support the smooth transition of industries and economies of countries that are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. We need sustainable climate and energy policy alliances. The EU could promote and expand international climate partnerships such as the Under2 Coalition – which, incidentally, provides a great opportunity for transatlantic cooperation.
Only a sovereign EU can meet the US on an equal footing, provide leadership, and cooperate to address China’s new hegemonic ambitions, as well as Moscow’s geostrategic goals and transgressions. The EU, therefore, needs bold and creative initiatives in these five areas.
But we will only succeed with the broad support of the European public. What is at stake here is no less than a new understanding of our national identity and that of every EU citizen. It is no longer enough to reach diplomatic agreements – any agreement without popular support will be on shaky ground and vulnerable to unscrupulous populists attacks. We must, therefore, have a fully transparent debate. The coming federal election campaign in Germany will be a moment when all parties will need to explain how they see Europe becoming the master of its destiny.
Translated by Marlene Riedel.
This article first appeared in German in Der Spiegel.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.