The EU's Strategic Autonomy

EU defense ministers will discuss steps towards a greater "strategic autonomy" - via PESCO and the "Strategic Compass."

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Own report) - In their video conference set for tomorrow, the EU defense ministers will focus on new steps towards a "strategic autonomy." One topic will be PESCO's "strategic review." PESCO is a project launched in early 2018, to enhance the EU's autonomy in the armament industry and military sectors. At the beginning of the month, following several years of dispute over the question of third countries' PESCO participation, an agreement came into effect. This will now be allowed, however only within tight limitations that are disadvantageous to the US arms industry. Apart from this, experts attest to PESCO's serious deficiencies. The EU foreign ministers' meeting tomorrow will also focus on the German plan to establish a "Strategic Compass" for the Union, aimed at finding a common denominator for the member states' conflicting interests. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is casting doubt on whether the EU can achieve "strategic autonomy" within the foreseeable future.

"Reviewing" PESCO

Tomorrow's video conference of the EU defense ministers will focus on PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation). Launched in 2018, it will enter its second phase next year (2021 to 2025) and is therefore currently undergoing a "strategic review." The project is aimed at accelerating the attainment of "strategic autonomy" in the armament industry and military sectors. At present, 46 PESCO projects are being developed and one has been terminated. These include such diverse areas as establishing a network of logistical hubs for the armed forces of the member states and the development of a "Eurodrone." While occasionally progress is officially being reported, experts are increasingly skeptical about the project. In reference to an internal document, it was reported already in May, that a "debacle" is imminent. The development of only one third of PESCO's projects is promising, the majority are still in the planning stage.[1] According to a report on a workshop organized at the end of September by the German defense ministry and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), 47 PESCO projects could do with "greater coherence, and it remains to be seen whether some would not even be jettisoned altogether.[2]

The Third-Country Issue

In spite of this, within the framework of its EU Council Presidency, the German government was able to solve a point of contention that had been smoldering since PESCO's creation - the issue of whether enterprises from non-EU countries may participate. In principle, this is in contradiction with PESCO's actual objective. On the other hand, there are exceptions, for example, Great Britain's participation and that of British enterprises are quite welcome in spite of Brexit. Because of Britain's considerable political and military clout, Berlin and Brussels would like to tie the UK as close as possible to the EU in questions of foreign policy. For this purpose, the German government has even established a so-called E3 format. ( reported.[3]) Controversial, on the other hand, is the participation of US companies. Whereas France, initially was strictly against it,[4] others, such as Poland and the Netherlands, because of their special transatlantic ties were in favor of not placing obstacles in the way of US enterprises participating in PESCO projects, even if that would involve a possible hemorrhaging of EU means to the United States. They argued that in some fields, US companies are technologically second to none. That can be useful, they reasoned.

Only Within Tight Limits

The agreement that Berlin was able to reach on October 28 - and which became binding on November 5 - has been met with resentment, particularly among US arms manufacturers. The EU compromise stipulates that enterprises with their headquarters outside the Union may, in principle, participate in PESCO projects. However, an application must be made for participation in each individual project. In addition, not only must the EU states approve the direct participation of the military forces or enterprises, the European Council must also be in agreement - unanimously. This means that virtually each EU member state can veto participation, for example, of a US arms producer. This is aggravated by the fact that not a single component destined to be used in a PESCO project may be subject to foreign export restrictions. This is directed primarily against the use of US technology, which due to US restrictions ( reported on the "International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR)" [5]) is usually prohibited from use and further export without explicit permission from Washington.[6] Whereas, these restrictions provoke anger in the USA, NATO-member Turkey is angered by the fact that the new PESCO third-country regulations require that participants must "share the values," and must be compatible with the interests of the EU member states.[7] Since the escalation of conflicts with Greece and Cyprus - at the latest - Turkish enterprises can hardly be considered for PESCO projects.[8]

The "Strategic Compass"

Tomorrow, Friday, in addition to PESCO, the EU Defense Ministers will also focus on the planned "Strategic Compass." This project pertains, in essence, to the attempt to find a common denominator for contradictory foreign and military policy interests of the Union's member states, that have been standing in the way of the EU developing a robust global policy. ( reported.[9]) A joint "threat analysis" will serve as a lever, with which Brussels can then formulate a joint strategy, and a clearer focus for the individual EU member states' arms buildup. The threat analysis - according to the plan - is intended to be formulated still this year on a basis agreed upon by the intelligence services of the individual member countries and their EU counterpart, the European Union Intelligence and Situation Center (EU IntCen). This means that the stipulation of central coordinates of the EU's future foreign and military policy will be even more than before without any form of democratic monitoring. In spite of this, the first voices of skepticism are being raised concerning the "Strategic Compass." At the Defense Ministry/DGAP workshop mentioned above, the complaint was raised that the EU is setting ambitious goals, yet does not have the resources to at least respond to crises "in its periphery." If the "Compass" does not indicate concrete solutions, is of no help.[10]

"Still dependent on the USA"

Sobered by the fact that the EU's "strategic autonomy" proudly announced more than four years ago - even before US President Donald Trump's electoral victory - did not make the progress expected by the German-European elites, Germany's Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is rather skeptical about the development over the next few years.[11] As she stated on Tuesday in her keynote address, according to Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) the USA provides "75 percent of NATO's total capabilities."[12] "To be able to compensate for all of this, according to reliable estimates, it would take decades and make our current defense budgets appear more than modest," the minister noted. If "the idea of Europe's strategic autonomy" nourishes "the illusion" that "we, in Europe, could achieve security, stability and prosperity without NATO and the USA," then that goes "too far." In any case, "Germany and Europe are, for the time being, dependent upon America's nuclear and conventional capabilities." Kramp-Karrenbauer's assessment is currently sharply criticized in France. President Emmanuel Macron is energetically pushing for rapid progress. This ongoing debate has been sparked, of course, by the aspired progress that has not materialized, in spite of the verbal gesticulations.


[1] Nicolas Gros-Verheyde: The half-failure of permanent structured cooperation is looming (v2). 12.05.2020.

[2] Christian Mölling, Torben Schütz: The EU's Strategic Compass and Its Four Baskets. Recommendations to Make the Most of It. DGAP Report No. 13. Berlin, November 2020.

[3] See also The EU's Strategic Compass (II).

[4] Philip Kaleta: Kampf um Milliarden-Töpfe: Warum Europas wichtigstes Militärprojekt die EU spaltet. 04.07.2019.

[5] See also Das deutsch-emiratische Sturmgewehr.

[6] Jürgen Wagner: PESCO-Drittstaatenregelung. 06.11.2020.

[7] EU defence cooperation: Council sets conditions for third-state participation in PESCO projects. 05.11.2020.

[8] Alexandra Brzozowski: Turkey frets as industry applauds deal to access EU military projects. 11.11.2020.

[9] See also The EU's Strategic Compass and The EU's Strategic Compass (II).

[10] Christian Mölling, Torben Schütz: The EU's Strategic Compass and Its Four Baskets. Recommendations to Make the Most of It. DGAP Report No. 13. Berlin, November 2020.

[11] See also Strategische Autonomie.

[12] Zweite Grundsatzrede der Verteidigungsministerin. 17.11.2020.