international analysis and commentary

Strategic Autonomy: Minimal Intervention, Maximum Diplomacy


The 2016 European Global Strategy (EUGS) introduced the objective of strategic autonomy. But to do what exactly? To protect ourselves, or to protect others, outside Europe, as well? To protect ourselves by defeating the enemy on his own ground, in Europe’s neighbourhood or further afield? Or only by making sure he doesn’t breach the walls of Europe? To protect us from all enemies, or only from some? Who is the “enemy” anyway?

I contend that unless Europe’s own territory is directly attacked by an armed aggressor, in which case we will of course defend ourselves with all available means, our doctrine should be one of minimal intervention.


A Doctrine of Minimal Intervention

Minimal intervention is not the same as non-intervention. We don’t want to signal to less than benign actors that, short of invading Europe, they can do as they please. Possessing a credible capacity for power projection has a deterrent effect: it will influence the calculation of other actors, notably in our broad neighbourhood. Paradoxically therefore, the more capable we are of military intervention, the less we may need to revert to it, whereas the weaker we are, others may seek to take advantage and create situations that will require us to intervene.

Minimal intervention does mean that, as a rule, the EU should only consider direct military intervention when our vital interests as defined by the EUGS (our security, prosperity, and democracy) are directly at stake. In my view the fourth vital interest listed in the EUGS, a rules-based global order, is in fact mostly of an instrumental nature: a rules-based global order must enable us to safeguard our vital interests proper, i.e. the first three. Hence, not all violations of the rules-based global order warrant military intervention by Europe – we should only take that into consideration if such violation directly threatens our own security, prosperity, or democracy, or if it threatens the global order as a whole.

Minimal intervention also means that we should abandon the idea that whenever and wherever a security problem arises, it is up to us to come up with a military solution. Rather we should push the local and regional actors, whose vital interests will actually be at stake, to assume their responsibility. At the same time, the EU can of course use other instruments than direct military intervention: diplomatic initiatives, economic pressure, and military actions short of the use of force. The EU can notably bring its substantial hard economic power to bear. Not intervening militarily is not the same as not caring.

Minimal intervention calls for maximal diplomacy therefore: to prevent conflict in the first place and, when conflict does break out, to put pressure on the warring parties (to cease hostilities) and on the relevant local and regional actors (to assume their responsibility, including military intervention if necessary).

Starting from this doctrine of minimal intervention, the military tasks can be finetuned, and the priority areas in which the EU has to achieve strategic autonomy first can be identified. The following three tasks that I propose are overlapping, as internal and external security form a continuum. They are all equally important, for all concern our vital interests. But the available means imply that the EU cannot realistically aspire to strategic autonomy in all areas at once – sequencing is in order.


Task 1: Protecting and defending Europe

The task of domestic security is self-evident and uncontentious. All EU Member States are fully capable of maintaining domestic security and to address such areas as counter-terrorism, cyber security, and border security. Coordination and, in some areas, the creation of capabilities at the EU level is strengthening Member State capacity to do so in the face of cross-border threats. These are often linked to the security situation in Europe’s neighbourhood, which may have unintended consequences for Europe, but certain actors in the neighbourhood also purposely inspire, commission, or perpetrate acts against our security.

Too many divisions remain between Member States for the EU to develop a single strategy for each of these areas, however. Specific questions are, for example: Can EU-wide terrorist threats be monitored and averted without an EU-level domestic intelligence service (which could also focus on a limited number of other specific cross-border threats)? What is the role of an offensive cyber capacity, and the appropriate level of organizing it? What is the most effective division of labour to ensure border security, and what is the role of military and paramilitary forces? In these areas the role of the armed forces mostly is to support the civilian authorities and agencies, though in certain specific domains the military will probably be in the lead (offensive cyber, for example). But for lack of sufficiently precise and consensual strategies in many areas, the EU has yet do develop a fully integrated approach that allows for the seamless cooperation between civilian actors and the armed forces inside the Union.

Even though the EU is thus ensuring domestic security in a strategically autonomous way, a lack of strategy and coordination result in suboptimal performance and cost-effectiveness. Treaty change is in order so as to allow action under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) on the territory of the Union. This in turn would allow the EU to give body to the Mutual Assistance Clause (Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union) in non-Article 5 contingencies.

When it comes to NATO Article 5-type scenarios, however, the limited readiness of European forces and the lack of agility in decision-making, as well as our capability shortfalls, mean that without the US and other non-EU NATO allies our capacity for deterrence and defence is severely constrained. Even taking into account that Europe will remain under the American nuclear umbrella, a minimal degree of strategic autonomy is nonetheless called for, given the real possibility of US attention and assets being pulled away in the case of a major crisis in Asia. Increased defence spending in the context of NATO is welcome and necessary, but will not be sufficient. The European allies and partners, i.e. the EU, will also have to design the right capability mix, allowing them to deter certain threats and to defend themselves autonomously against them pending reinforcement from non-EU allies, while also assuming the other two tasks. In view of available resources, a significant degree of strategic autonomy can only be a long-term objective. Nevertheless, the objective must be fixed upon now, so that relevant priorities can notably guide projects under Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) from today onwards. A consensus is indeed emerging that PESCO must develop capabilities for the full spectrum of military tasks rather than only for expeditionary operations.

Fortunately, the main potential aggressor, Russia, with a GDP of just about 10% that of the EU, does not have the economic resources to wage great power war, nor does the readiness of the bulk of its forces compare with the tip of the spear that is on show in their major manoeuvres. But that does not mean that Europe can be complacent about its lack of strategic autonomy in deterrence and defence.


Task 2: Stabilising the broad neighbourhood

That the EU needs the capacity to project power in its neighbourhood is not contentious; in fact, that was the purpose when the CSDP (then ESDP) was created in 1999. But we have to clarify which type of contingencies warrant which kind of engagement. In my view, rather than crisis response in general, our task is to stabilise the neighbourhood, i.e. to directly intervene militarily only when our own security, prosperity or democracy are threatened. The EU would thus be sending a strong signal to any actors with malicious intent: our vital interests do constitute a red line, and we will act when it is crossed.

The EU ought to have achieved strategic autonomy in this area a long time ago, as this is what the 1999 Helsinki Headline Goal purported. But is hasn’t, for lack of investment in the right capabilities (notably strategic enablers) and for lack of real defence integration. This is what PESCO and the European Defence Fund (EDF) should correct: achieving real strategic autonomy in full-spectrum operations in the broad neighbourhood should be our number one priority now. Many countries in our neighbourhood are at war, and in many instances the US will not bear the brunt of the burden – the urgency is obvious.

EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini meeting with NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg


Task 3: Maintaining global connectivity and collective security

The EU has the capacity to contribute on a permanent basis to UN collective security. Securing our connectivity with the world beyond our own neighbourhood and the freedom of access to the global commons (the seas, space, air space, and cyber space) will, however, require additional capabilities, notably in the maritime domain. While two EU Member States (for the moment), France and Britain, have military bases in key regions, a “Europeanised” approach and a stronger permanent presence are in order to at least allow the EU to engage in military-to-military activities with, for example, all concerned parties in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea. In this sense, a degree of autonomy can be a short-to-medium-term objective. A more significant degree of autonomy, based on a closer study of connectivity and its security implications, must be a medium-to-long-term objective.



The day another state decides against a specific course of action because it reckons that Europe will oppose it and it doesn’t want to risk Europe’s ire, that is when the EU will be a true strategic actor. This is not a plea for interventionism, but a plea to build the capacity and the will to act when our vital interests are at stake, according to a doctrine of minimal intervention and maximal diplomacy. We will know we have achieved strategic autonomy when our power projection capacity figures in the cost-benefit calculations of others.

One very significant other, the US, may at first sight not like the idea of European strategic autonomy. Let us not allow that to restrain us. There is no pleasing the current US President anyway. Let us just act, and the results will speak for themselves. A Europe that has strategic autonomy can be a real ally for the US, allowing for more substantial cooperation as well as for a division of labour without the US incurring any risk. And it allows for European action, of course, in instances when the US is not inclined to act in line with the European interest. Europeans can only emancipate themselves from self-imposed American tutelage. Not to act against the US, but to be much more capable of acting with the US – whenever that is in our joint interest.

In the end, strategic autonomy is as much about our mindset as anything else. It requires political, economic and military power, but most importantly, willpower.






This contribution is based on the Egmont Paper No. 103: Fighting for Europe – European Strategic Autonomy and the Use of Force ( by the same author.