There’s a lot going on in Europe right now: Paris and Rome have signed the Quirinale Treaty; the European External Action Service under High Representative Josep Borrell has circulated a draft of the Strategic Compass, laying out an EU security and defense strategy for the next 5-10 years; and the three coalition partners in Germany’s new federal government have committed to an ambitious program featuring the vision of a European federation. Crucially, all the above share a common goal: bolstering “European sovereignty” or EU strategic autonomy.
These developments have come as the European Union is facing a series of challenges, centered on a core question: How can the bloc best deal with its problem neighbors, rivals and competitors across the world, from Africa to China and Russia to Turkey?
Strategic autonomy indicates the strengthening of the EU’s impact, if not through all 27 acting in unison, then through “coalitions of the willing” or forms of “enhanced cooperation” in which groups of like-minded member-states act jointly. A bilateral agreement informed by such logic was, after all, September’s defense pact between Greece and France.
Of course, Europe’s commitment to the Euro-Atlantic alliance remains beyond any doubt; strategic autonomy seeks to strengthen NATO’s European pillar, not to replace it. However, NATO’s focus is shifting away from European areas of concern like the Mediterranean and Africa. The fact that, after Brexit, 80% of NATO’s defense spending comes from countries outside the EU is an indicator that NATO priorities will not necessarily coincide with those of the European Union.
Here’s a key question: How do you deal with China? Europe views China as an economic competitor, a systemic rival, and a partner in issues such as global climate. On technology, aware of security implications, Europe seeks independence from China, and aligns itself with the US. But the European Union has a strong interest in maintaining its economic ties with China; European companies, the European economy, are far more exposed to China than the United States is. In fact, 11% of EU exports go to China, compared with just 6% of US exports.
“Old Europe” also knows that escalating tensions with China in a new cold war carries with it the risk of a hot war becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. America’s approach to these issues is informed by its self-sufficiency as a large, relatively closed economy, its self-confidence as the indispensable nation, and (despite an enlightened Biden administration) by the profound ignorance and Manichaeism of Trumpian “deep America.” Having lived (and died) through centuries of wars fought on its territories, Europe tends to be more mature and circumspect.
The European Union is a peace project and a polity that emerged out of a common market, and its foreign policy shares this lineage. The magnetism of a single European market trading with the world is the source of Europe’s power – its global economic, commercial and regulatory footprint, occasionally referred to as the “Brussels effect.” This is a power that is predicated on a functional global system underpinned by multilateral institutions, rules and treaties. The Pax Europaea is a model of liberal peace achieved through international economic interdependence. With no illusions: Economic interdependence alone is no absolute guarantee of peace (Britain and Germany were highly interdependent on the eve of the Great War). But dividing the world into two self-sufficient economic blocs (West vs China) in a cold war setting is the fastest route to conflict.
Faced with Russia, the (old) EU carries the same level-headed reflexes. While under no illusions with regard to Putin’s authoritarianism, spreading disinformation and support to Europe’s far right, the European Union also grasps the need for dialogue with Russia. This realism seems to be shared by the Biden administration, which wisely wants to prevent a strategic alignment between China and Russia.
What does all this suggest for Greece? NATO and the country’s close ties to the USA are pillars of Greece’s national security. At the same time, NATO has its limits: Turkey is also a member, which means the organization remains neutral in any Greek-Turkish dispute. This isn’t true of the European Union, a union constitutionally committed to solidarity among its members. The EU’s position on Turkey is far from neutral, even though Greece would often prefer it to be more assertive. Turkey’s crucial dependence on the European Union, by far Turkey’s largest trading partner, renders it susceptible to EU economic and political pressure (or threat thereof), if needed. As a case in point, the EU is launching a powerful new anti-coercion instrument, empowering the European Commission to apply trade, investment or other restrictions on any non-EU country unduly interfering in the policy choices of the bloc or its member-states. The EU is Greece’s most stable and long-lasting partner, over and above occasional regional alliances, some of which may be proven short-lived. Bolstering the EU’s strategic autonomy (also a priority of France, Greece’s closest ally after the bilateral defense agreement) is clearly in Greece’s interest. At the same time, Greece shares the pragmatism of (old) Europe in rejecting the logic of cold war confrontations. The lessons of history have not come cheap for the Old Continent.
George Pagoulatos is professor of European politics and economy at the Athens University of Economics and Business, and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).