Strategic autonomy for the EU? How Europe can better care for its security

What is the meaning of Euroepan strategic autonomy and can PESCO help achieve it?


Marcin Zaborowski (Visiting Fellow at ECFR)
Michał Baranowski (head of the Warsaw Office of German Marshall Fund)
Olivier de France (Research Director at IRIS, Paris)

Chaired by

Piotr Buras – the Director of the ECFR Warsaw Office.

Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Konrad Adenauer Foundation had the pleasure of hosting a public debate:

Strategic autonomy for the EU? How Europe can better care for its security

March 15th between 14:00 and 15:30, on the premises of the Stefan Batory Foundation, ul. Sapieżyńska 10a, Turowicz Room

In light of current developments in the area of European and global security order, ECFR Warsaw Office held a public debate to discuss the prospects and potential challenges for the Permanent and Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and other European security initiatives. The discussion was based on recently published “Poland and European Defense Integration” report by Marcin Zaborowski, ECFR Visiting Fellow, was joined in the panel by Olivier de France, Research Director at Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques in Paris, and Michal Baranowski, the Director of the Warsaw Office of the German Marshall Fund. This line-up permitted a discussion of French, Polish and transatlantic perspectives on European defence and allowed complex vision of such issues as the so-called “strategic autonomy” and Polish perspective on PESCO.

The main focus of the discussion was on the concept of strategic autonomy, as all the discussants agreed that it carries different meanings among different EU member states, not to mention the US. According to Olivier de France, Paris has a Cartesian understanding of the notion, where autonomy means the freedom to chose one’s “own constraints”, which derives from the “free will” of each state. In this sense, European strategic autonomy would entail the EU member states choosing to be bound by the European institutional framework rather than the constraints imposed by the US or any other actor who may not necessarily have the same world-view and interests as European countries.

Along similar lines, Marcin Zaborowski argued that current, unpredictable American foreign policy makes it difficult to be sure that EU and the US will always pursue the same political and security interests. In case the US will not be able to guarantee Europe’s security, he said, the latter must be able to take own responsibility for it.

In his turn, Michał Baranowski underlined Washington’s determination to remain the key player in the security of the EU, Poland and NATO’s Eastern flank. Thus, it is important that European policymakers clearly state that strategic autonomy is not aimed against the US. European integration in the area of defence should instead be considered as the EU pillar of NATO. Otherwise, according to Michał Baranowski, Europe can find itself in a situation when the US will start reducing its military presence in Europe, while the EU is not yet ready to defend itself independently.

Apart from strategic autonomy, the discussion also looked into the nature of PESCO and its practical implications for the security in the EU. All the discussants agreed that the initiative carries a rather political character, while not guaranteeing new European military capabilities. Olivier de France argued that Paris perceives PESCO as institutional way of building the EU. In this context, the European Intervention Initiative (EII) was launched by France with different aims and outside the EU’s institutional framework. Based upon common interests and perceptions in select areas, it is supposed to deliver specific military capabilities and operations much faster than PESCO would. This initiative stems from France’s frustration with lack of progress and concrete results of Common Security and Defence Policy, particularly after the financial crisis in 2008-9, he stated. Responding to fears that such a bilateral approach to cooperation as the EII may actually become an alternative to the EU integration in security and defence area, Olivier de France stated that France wants to see the EU as a foreign policy power making institutional integration in defence and security important for Paris.

Marcin Zaborowski also presented Polish perspective on PESCO. He emphasised that Poland has always been a strong advocate for the military cooperation in Europe, going as far as supporting the concept of European army. The current, sceptical stance on Permanent Structured Cooperation thus represents a notable change in Polish strategic culture. He argued that, nevertheless, Poland can become a strong pillar of European security and defence, given its military spending levels and capabilities. In times of tensions with Brussels, Warsaw could use its contributions to European defence, including more engagement with PESCO, to demonstrate its active and important role in the EU and improve the perception of Poland, Marcin Zaborowski said.

During the question and answer session, the audience raised the issue competitiveness of European arms industries and the need to coordinate military purchases. However, as Olivier de France pointed out, member states wish to protect their domestic arms producers, a trend that has accelerated since 2008. Michał Baranowski answered a question on technological changes in warfare, emphasising the inclusion of new technologies and robots by US and China. Olivier de France build upon that, arguing that the gradual approach of PESCO may actually hinder Europe’s capability to catch up in this field. He also answered a question on Brexit, stating that the EU’s strategic autonomy is impossible without close cooperation with the UK, given the quality of its military and its contributions to research and development.

Click on the button to load the content from

Load content

Photo © European Union 2014 – European Parliament (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons license).