EU strategic autonomy and the current framework of the transatlantic partnership
By Sara Fattori
The history of transatlantic relations has often been marked by doctrines defining American foreign policy – isolationism, exceptionalism, Monroe Doctrine, Truman Doctrine, unilateralism, including Trump’s recent motto “America first”. For the first time in centuries, EU-US relations are very much dependent on a concept coming from the other side of the Atlantic: strategic autonomy. Coined in the 1990s in the field of defense industry, it was elaborated in the 2016 EU Global Strategy and defined as the “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners where possible”. Although it was seen by many as a symbol of disengagement with the United States, it has now been clarified as complementary and necessary to the transatlantic relationship and especially to the Atlantic Alliance, and has been welcomed by NATO Secretary General as well as by President Biden. In fact, while NATO would remain the framework in which defense is carried out in the EU as outlined in Article 5 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, to develop its military capabilities, the EU should further invest in its defense budget and address the gaps identified by NATO itself, which would result in a stronger NATO.
It is not a coincidence that the concept was further developed during Trump administration, as the EU felt abandoned by its historical ally – Trump described it as a rival and competitor rather than a partner. Several unilateral actions undermined the transatlantic relationship (e.g. US withdrawal from the Paris agreement) making the EU reflect on the necessity to become more autonomous and define its own norms. Yet, strategic autonomy on the European side has never meant unilateralism, as its definition underlines that partners are always welcome. The EU calls for multilateralism and acknowledges the need of acting together to face global issues that could not be tackled but with cooperation. Although the EU welcomed the election of President Biden, feeling to “have the US again on the same side of history”, the relationship will never be the same as it used to be as the EU is not ready to blindly follow the US anymore. The situation in Afghanistan and the episode of the submarines are some of the examples that continue to make the EU eager to focus on strategic autonomy. It wishes to align with the US when and where possible, hoping for a stronger impact of joint forces on the international stage, while maintaining its own perspective and interests, even if they do not fully coincide with the US’.
The EU program to become “a security provider for its citizens” through a strategic compass that would supply political guidance for the EU’s defense policy is very ambitious and require resources and willpower that will only be achieved in the long-term. However, the approach has already determined the EU positions in several global challenges and sets the context for the current framework of EU-US relations. A great role is also played by the shift in the approach to security from the military to new areas of power: information, technology, data, which contribute to increasing the potential for cooperation in the framework of transatlantic relations.
I. Addressing geopolitical threats: the transatlantic relationship vis-à-vis Russia, China and the MENA region
Since the illegal annexation of Crimea, EU-US-Russia relations have been often tense, as reflected even in the expulsion of each other’s diplomats over the past months.
Both the EU and the US have condemned several human rights abuses by Russia including the fraudulent results of the Duma elections, the detention and poisoning of Aleksey Navalny, and the effort to suppress Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Representing a threat for both the EU and the US security, Russia even remains NATO’s raison d’être for the Europeans and the recent escalation of events in Ukraine come to confirm so. Thus, reinforced strategic autonomy might on the one hand increase deterrence and prevent Russia from behaving aggressively in the region, while making the EU feel better prepared in case of an attack from Russia, and allowing the US to shift its focus elsewhere (i.e. the Indo-Pacific). It has to be noted, however, that as things stand, the EU does not appear prepared in terms of capability to face Russian military threats and still relies on continued US engagement through NATO, although it is trying to pursue strategic autonomy by taking the lead in diplomatic and economic measures to confront Putin in Ukraine.
Russia is also still determined to develop its sphere of influence within or very close to the EU such as in the Western Balkans, the Arctic and Eastern Europe, including by intervening in their technological systems. Beyond traditional security threat, Russia has become involved in cyber security and hybrid threats mostly through engagement in disinformation electoral campaigns, or cyber-attacks on information systems such as WannaCry. Besides imposing sanctions, the transatlantic partners should aim to bring Russia to refrain from state-related cyber disruptions and prevent cyber disruptions by criminals operating from Russian soil. Moreover, they should put pressure on Putin to verify and crack down several criminal ransomware gangs that are involved in criminal activities such as money laundering. However, with Russia cracking down on experts who cooperate with international efforts to increase cybersecurity, it appears rather difficult to involve Russia in the talks on cyber security. Therefore, we suggest advocating for non-reciprocity of hybrid threats and enhancing cooperation in this field within NATO by equipping the Organization with the capabilities of tracking and isolating security breaches.
Despite conflicting interests and threats, Russia is a fundamental partner for cooperation on arms control. The extension with no conditions of the START Agreement in February 2021, shows already a step forward in the West-Russian relations in this field. Further engagement should concern limiting all nuclear weapons, in particular non-strategic nuclear weapons, as well as reopening negotiations for a revisited INF Agreement. Consultations between the EU and the US are key to implementing the strategic relations with Russia.
By 2035, China is believed to be capable of narrowing the gap with the most advanced Western militaries, following the trajectory of rising great powers. China is already determined to push American influence away not only from the surroundings, but also from other regions such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) by creating diplomatic and economic alliances with countries which, like China, disregard human rights and good governance (e.g. Gulf States). From the American perspective, a shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, has been recognized since the Obama Administration, which represents one reason behind the EU’s call for strategic autonomy. If the US is concentrated on Asia, less resources are invested in Europe, which also entails a stronger threat by Russia. If the EU’s defense capabilities are increased making it able to defend itself vis-à-vis the Russian threat, this also benefits the US who can focus on the Indo-Pacific. However, in the EU-China-US triangle, the position of the EU is not yet determined. In case of a call for support by the US, the EU could still decide to align or to ignore it – under article 5 of NATO, countries are not forced to provide support to the US in East Asia, although this might undermine US commitment to European security. When addressing security threats by China, therefore, the US should aim to negotiate with China on arms control and initiate confidence-building measures attempting to limit the risk of nuclear escalation. However, while the US is taking a confrontational approach with China, making it difficult to negotiate arms control, the EU could play the role of mediator in this process. Moreover, we recommend that the EU strengthen its defense capabilities alongside NATO. Both the EU and the US should increase their presence in the region, including through diplomatic, economic and cultural means that would attract countries to follow a more liberal and democratic order.
On trade, the three economies are interdependent: in 2021 the US is the largest partner for EU exports of goods as well as trade and investment, and the second for EU imports of goods, closely followed by China. The US and the EU have converging interests on matters such as intellectual property protection, state subsidies or market access, yet their approaches differ. While the US conducts a heavy narrative against China, the position of the EU is ambiguous and less challenging as China is seen as “a cooperation and negotiation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival”. For instance, 18 EU countries are now part of the Belt and Road Initiative. If the EU wants to join the US in condemning unfair trade practices and build a common effective counter-project to China’s BRI, all EU member states should manage to find a common position on China and move towards a clearer direction.
Strategic autonomy led the EU to dissociate from the US withdrawal from the Iran Deal and to maintain a dialogue in the region which is now key to facilitate negotiations with the new American Administration to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Beyond this, the MENA region has lost attractiveness in the eyes of the US as priority has shifted to the Indo-Pacific.
American disengagement has opened the door for influence and increased economic presence by Russia, Turkey and China, the latter becoming the first trade partner and foreign investor in the area.
However, Americans still recognize the existence of strategic interests which make it difficult for them to distance completely and still aim to maintain stability in the region, seeking the support of the EU in sharing this goal. The EU wishes to engage more but has not been able to affirm its presence due to inadequate political and military capabilities. “Containing the increasing influence of Russia and China, convincing Iran and the Gulf countries to engage in a regional security agenda, persuading Turkey to return to the mainstream in NATO, and urging Israel to seriously consider a definitive settlement of the Palestinian issue” are some of the main goals identified. To address these goals, we propose enhanced and complementary cooperation in the region between the two transatlantic partners as well as increased economic, diplomatic and cultural presence. Once again, the EU should strengthen its political and defense investment if it wishes to live up to the ambitious agenda of a renewed dialogue, complement the American conduct in the region and exercise strategic leadership.
II. Promoting liberal and democratic values: the EU and the US join forces on the pressing issues destabilizing the international order.
With its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), environmental, health, food safety standards, among others, the EU wishes to use its market and normative power to extend its influence. This has been demonstrated independently from the Americans over the past years, but now the US seems to be back on board.
A. Climate change
Similarly to the JCPOA, the EU did not abandon its leadership position in the Paris agreement once the US decided to withdraw in 2020. It has continued to develop initiatives and engage other countries, making climate diplomacy, climate-related security risks and energy strategies the core of its external action policies. In the US, climate change is a partisan issue, which is also dependent on the organization of the federal system: priorities of the states which are the most affected by climate change or the energy-producer states might not align with the national agenda. Under the current government, the “Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” was published in line with the general “Build Back Better” plan. The US also rejoined the Paris agreement, committed to reduce US emissions by 50 to 52% in 2030 and to keep temperature below 1.5 degree Celsius, and invested $73 for clean energy. Transatlantic cooperation in this field is officially back: at COP26 in Glasgow, the EU and US announced a global pledge to limit methane emissions by 30%. The EU and the US also refused the creation of a climate disaster fund but committed to ongoing negotiations to find alternatives to funding the most climate-affected developing countries. Moreover, the Atlantic Allies agreed on a Climate Change Security Action Plan that was established within NATO in June 2021.
Some recommendations in the field include enhanced coordination on the global trade agenda, particularly on setting up new rules for the global financial industry on climate change advocating for decarbonization of banks’ activities. A carbon border adjustment mechanism should also be foreseen through a coordinated approach.Finally, all these measures should be carried out as soon as possible with increased pressure by the EU on the US, in order to avoid the risk of halting such progress by the possible return of Republicans in 2024. However, domestic polarization will remain a stumbling block for Biden’s climate agenda as well as for the future of climate change policy effectiveness in the US.
B. Trade, technology and artificial intelligence
On trade, technology and artificial intelligence, the EU and the US are concerned about China’s effort to dominate and restrict open internet development, opposed to the value of transatlantic open communication. Their main goal is also to ensure that liberal and democratic values accompany technological development without undermining innovation. Despite diverging regulatory approaches, the US practicing laissez-faire combined with ex-post lawsuits and the EU regulating ex-ante, the EU and the US have agreed on launching the Trade and Technology Council (TTC) as a forum to coordinate their mindsets and strengthen transatlantic relations. In particular, when tackling artificial intelligence, the TTC prioritizes technological superiority vis-à-vis China via an AI development “grounded in human rights, inclusion, diversity, innovation, economic growth, and societal benefit” which accompanies a discussion on limiting the use of facial recognition technologies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Despite EU-US dissensus on digital tax early this year and under the framework of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the US, together with 139 countries agreed on a 15% minimum corporate tax – a step forward in the elimination of tax havens and in facing the challenges of the digital era.
If engaging on international fora is key to multilateralism preached by both partners, the two also agree that the international order needs to be reformed. Americans and Europeans aim to address “unfair Chinese trade practices, such as dumping, discriminatory non-tariff barriers, forced technology transfer, overcapacity, and industrial subsidies”through a transatlantic agenda on World Trade Organization (WTO) reform. In particular, the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism should be improved and the rulebook concerning industrial subsidies, unfair behavior of state-owned enterprises and other trade and marker distorting practices should be updated.
Through these joint initiatives, the EU and the US have begun to make their voice heard on the international order, creating a liberal pole opposed to the aggressive and illiberal Chinese approach. On the use of artificial intelligence and technologies, we believe that the transatlantic partnership could become a reference point only if it behaves coherently with the goals set by the TTC. Scandals (such as Cambridge Analytica) on either side would undermine the attractiveness of their approach, which is essential to counter Chinese influence and bring other countries on board.
On a broader level, the transatlantic partnership is challenged on its core values: democracy, human rights, inclusion and diversity are being eroded by powerful and influential authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia and by domestic populist-nationalist movements that they sometimes manage to manipulate. Once again, the EU and US’ aligning interests aim to promote a world order in which the rule of law and democracy are the guiding principles of interactions in all the different fields. The first Summit on Democracy organized by President Biden, took place in December 2021 aiming at “bringing together leaders from government, civil society and the private sector, to set an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action”. Yet, if the EU welcomed such an initiative, it found unclear why Poland was invited while Hungary was not, both representing what the EU had often described as “democratic backsliding”. The Summit certainly represented an opportunity to outline how countries can make progress on such critical matters like democracy, free elections and media, transparency and the fight against corruption. However, there were not clear distinctions among students and teachers as “no democracy, including the United States is perfect”. In fact, seeds of illiberalism are spread within our own transatlantic societies. Episodes such as the Capitol Hill or behaviors of countries like Poland and Hungary within the EU, make it difficult to promote a coherent transatlantic agenda on democracy and the rule of law, when there is not even internal agreement. Assuming that inequalities are among the main causes of populism and that populism is one of the hindering elements of our societies, we recommend both the EU and the US to respond to economic insecurity, exacerbated by Covid-19, by reducing inequalities, advancing social measures and creating a larger social safety net. Common problems, such as populism and inequality, can be faced by common transatlantic solutions which is why we also put forward the idea of creating a forum on shared experience to identify good practices and support each other. The transatlantic impact on exporting democratic values will be more legitimate and credible, thus stronger, once domestic democratic weaknesses are solved. Thus, the present and future of the transatlantic relationship is very much dependent on these domestic challenges, which represent yet another reason for the EU to develop greater strategic autonomy.
President Biden in the framework of the International Summit on Democracy, December 2021
Credit: Eric Haynes
To conclude, on all the different fields we have analyzed, we present one last recommendation that concerns “thickening transatlantic structures of dialogue” through enhanced interparliamentary ties which would allow better coordination and understanding of each other’s positions, first and foremost on China.
We believe that if our recommendations are considered, there is a real potential for the transatlantic relations to flourish on the international stage and impose themselves as a model. In our view, it is possible and valuable to increase the transatlantic partnership, especially in a world characterized by such global challenges and aggressive powers as those we have commented upon in this policy brief. However, we are conscious that the future of the relations will very much depend on the next presidential elections, as the return of the Republicans could once again hinder the US alliance with the EU. Despite the convergence of current relations under Biden administration, the framework of future relations could be built on a two-track order in which the EU and the US share democratic values and a cooperative relationship where possible, while maintaining a certain level of competition where not possible. This is also determined by the level of strategic autonomy that the EU will be able to achieve in the next decade. In any case, the EU, now and in the future “might not always agree with recent decisions by the White House, but it will always cherish the transatlantic alliance – based on shared values and history and an unbreakable bond between [our] people. So whatever may happen, it is ready to build a new transatlantic agenda”.
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 United States Department of State, “The Summit for Democracy,” 2021, https://www.state.gov/summit-for-democracy/.
 Amy Mackinnon, “Biden’s Summit for Democracy Will Include Some Not-So-Democratic Countries,” Foreign Policy, October 19, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/19/biden-summit-for-democracy-poland-mexico-philippines/.
 Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis, “Biden’s Democracy Summit: Problematic Invite List Casts Shadow on Impact,” Reuters, November 7, 2021, sec. World, https://www.reuters.com/world/bidens-democracy-summit-problematic-invite-list-casts-shadow-impact-2021-11-07/.
 Dalibor Rohac, Liz Kennedy, and Vikram Singh, “Drivers of Authoritarian Populism in the United States” (Center for American Progress and American Enterprise Institute, May 10, 2018).
 European Parliament, op.cit., 24.
 Ursula Von Der Leyen, “State of the Union Address by President von Der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary,” (September 16, 2020), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_20_1655.