TAG PREMIUM BLOG: Strategic Autonomy or Strategic Solitude?

German foreign and security policy is in such bad shape that it is damaging the political and strategic relationship with Berlin and Paris which in the past was so crucial for pushing Europe forward. As Europe refuses to adapt to the changing geostrategic environment, France may be forced to choose an operational bilateral cooperation with the United States and an assumed posture of strategic “solitude”.

By Yves Boyer

The harsh light of history

At the end of the 19th century, when asked about the state of the world by Princess Mathilde, niece of Napoléon I, a famous French historian, Ernest Lavisse, replied, “My experience as a historian has taught me that everything has always been very bad“.

 Lavisse’s ‘bon mot’ could be used to characterise the European situation at a time when France holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Without dwelling on major structural problems, such as the global crisis linked to Covid 19, climate change or the situation in Eastern Europe in the face of Russia’s threatening attitude, there are several other issues on the European agenda that need to be addressed. 

A fundamental question about the very nature of the European Union remains unanswered. Will it ‘leave history’ by being merged into a wider Western community under the tutelage, by and large benevolent, of the United States, to which many European states have pledged allegiance? 

Or, will it choose, as some European leaders advocate, become a union capable of defending its own interests, a distinct model of society and culture while still remaining a core member of the Western camp?  Is Europe even willing to admit that the geopolitics of the 21st century belongs to other ‘big beasts’ who will not hesitate to use force as much as they seek cooperation in international relations?

Some Europeans turn a blind eye to these issues even as they deplore the fact they are being marginalised. For example, President Biden did not even consult his European allies when he decided to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. During the negotiations between Washington and Moscow on European security the EU was relegated to the side-lines of the talks. What these events reveal is that Washington simply does not consider Europeans as equals, which has given further impetus to those arguing for greater European strategic autonomy.

Franco-German Driver?

Europeans remain disunited on many issues. Brexit has deprived the EU of a key player, whilst there is no shared vision between Member States of the EU’s future, be it for common financing, energy mix, etc. 

Central and Eastern Europeans remain obsessed with what they see as the Russian threat and place a higher priority on American protection than European solidarity. Divergence is also apparent over the very values the Union is meant to uphold.  This leads to at best unfortunate choice of words such as those used by the head of Poland’s ruling party, Jarosław Kaczyński. Last December he declared that Germany is trying to turn the EU into a federal “German Fourth Reich“.

Given the depth of this European imbroglio prolonged tensions in Franco-German relations would undoubtedly have the most serious of consequences for Europe, which one almost dare not envisage.

Several European leaders have expressed their wish to give the European Union its own military intervention capability, which would be complementary to the Atlantic Alliance, and enable it to act independently if the need so arose. Regrettably, the somewhat unkind statements by the then German Defence Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, shooting down French aspirations for strategic autonomy, had the effect of a cold shower. Instead, she made a vibrant plea for a strong NATO and for a European rapprochement with the United States. In her view, the desire to conduct autonomous European military operations without US support was definitely “the wrong direction to take“. Rather, Europeans should give up their military ambitions, which she described as a “phantasm”. Consequently, uncertainties in Paris about the strategic orientation of German defence were thus reinforced. 

Paris is also particularly concerned about numerous German delays and reversals in major bilateral defence-industrial programmes, including the provision of new maritime patrol aircraft, modernisation of the Tigre helicopter, as well as the future battle tank and fighter combat aircraft projects (SCAF/FCAS). Indeed, a host of issues related to the defence industrial and technological base (DTIB) are now central to the wider Franco-German relationship.

Hard Choices

Faced with all these challenges, Paris finds itself alone and to simply caricature its position as “Gaullist” is an intellectual fallacy that does not help matters and which certainly does not correspond to the state of the French debate in 2021. The very future of the French DTIB depends, in part, on increased European cooperation whilst at the same time preserving national know-how in nuclear, space, electronic and aeronautical sectors, which are also closely linked to the so-called ‘deep state’ and to preservation of France’s independent nuclear deterrent. 

If Germany was to continue on its current trajectory, and if European partners were to persist in their cautious attitude towards greater European strategic autonomy, which certainly is in need of better definition, the only way forward for Paris would be to return to a position on defence which France has adhered to fairly consistently since the 1950s: operational bilateral cooperation with the United States and an assumed posture of strategic “solitude”.