Si vis pacem para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war. For too long, Europe has ignored this fundamental Latin adage.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine has made abundantly clear, Europe is still dependent on the United States as a guarantor of the continent’s security and as a deterrent to Russian aggression. Without American weapons and financial aid, the situation on the ground in Ukraine would look very different.
Can Europe afford to take this support for granted? Every statement about Europe or NATO that then-President Trump made was combed through with unprecedented diligence in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin, not to mention Warsaw and Tallinn. After the election of President Biden, however, discussions about the future of transatlantic relations have mainly focused on the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the impending accession of two new members.
What no longer seems to be top-of-mind in Europe is the further polarization of American politics. One of the two major American parties is becoming increasingly isolationist and authoritarian. Europe simply can no longer take American support for granted, but there is no coherent EU strategy or debate about a scenario where transatlantic cooperation no longer forms the foundation of European security.
Europe’s reliance on the United States has led to a lack of proper prioritization of one foundational element of security and sovereignty: deterrence. If the EU is to truly become strategically autonomous, and guarantee the security of the continent in a situation where the U.S. significantly decreases its presence in Europe, this needs to change. Deterrence needs to become a central part of the European Union’s push for strategic autonomy by prioritizing security of supply, integrating security into wider EU policymaking, reforming outdated decision-making processes, moving towards a more European NATO, and creating a capable European intelligence agency.
During the Cold War, the world was taught a lesson in deterrence theory through the concept of mutually assured destruction, an enduring dynamic that created a deterrent to either side launching a nuclear attack.
Today, deterrence has a much more nuanced meaning. Great power competition, and indeed war, have become more complicated affairs, and unfortunately grow more nebulous each decade. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin summed it up nicely: “Deterrence still rests on the same logic—but it now spans multiple realms, all of which must be mastered to ensure our security in the 21st century.”1
As is evident from the decision by long-standing EU member states Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership, deterrence has not been and is still not an objective of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU.2 The leading policy document for the CSDP approved in March 2022, the Strategic Compass, is aimed at guiding and enhancing the Union’s action “to make the EU a stronger and more capable security provider.”3 The word deterrent is not mentioned once in the 64-page document and “deter” only twice. As a comparison, in the U.S. National Security Strategy from October 2022, some variation of the word “deter” is used 40 times in 48 pages.
That is partly by design and partly by omission. In Europe, deterrence has been the domain of NATO, whose first core task is deterrence and defense,4 and national militaries. NATO’s Article V enshrines the principle of collective defense, and the nuclear umbrella has served as the ultimate deterrent. These existing deterrents have worked in preventing adversaries from using direct military force against an EU or NATO member state. They have not, however, deterred Russia from escalating its broader hybrid war with the Western world over the past decade.
To cover this gap in Europe’s security architecture, particularly in a scenario where American involvement is decreased, the EU needs to integrate deterrence into its policymaking.
The goal of strategic autonomy is for the EU to no longer need to rely on other countries to make decisions and protect its interests. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, strategic autonomy was primarily coined to address security and defense issues. Later, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the concept came to encompass the need to defend European interests more broadly. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic dependence on foreign supply chains has taken center stage in the debate, and today, almost all policy areas are covered by the concept.
In the realms of manufacturing, innovation, and technological advancement, Europe now lags behind both the United States and China. The European economy not only relies heavily on the importation of entire product categories from countries like China, but several European businesses also depend on non-EU suppliers and intellectual resources.
Strategic autonomy in non-security domains is paramount for the EU to be able to effectively address security challenges and maintain influence in global affairs. Allowing geostrategic rivals to have leverage over the EU through their control of central parts of critical supply chains is the essence of short-term suboptimization. It also damages the deterrent effect created by billions of euros invested in traditional deterrence-creating measures, predominantly on a national level. Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and the resulting leverage it has granted Putin serves as a crucial warning, highlighting the undeniable link between the supply of societally critical resources and security. The vast amount of military equipment expended in Russia’s war in Ukraine, coupled with the West’s inability to produce it at scale, further emphasizes the need for investing in domestic manufacturing capabilities.
It is useful to think about strategic autonomy as a sliding scale between full autonomy and full dependency in different policy areas.5 The EU needs to tread cautiously when drafting policies that move the slider. It needs to be careful not to raise unnecessary trade barriers, incentivize protectionism, or further erode European competitiveness in emerging technologies. However, not reacting to a changed geopolitical environment would be even more harmful.
In the EU context, security of supply refers to the availability of adequate energy resources and does not cover other areas.6 EU policymakers must broaden the scope to include other essential resources, such as food and water. One does not need to look further than to the northeasternmost member state with a long history of coping and even thriving next door to Russia. In Finland, the National Emergency Supply Agency (NESA) is responsible for coordinating the efforts of various organizations and sectors to integrate the objectives and interests of society and the business community. This collaboration is critical to ensure the continuity of critical operations in the event of disruptions or emergencies.
The EU should establish a European Emergency Supply Agency based on the Finnish model of NESA. The agency would not only coordinate the efforts of EU-level and national agencies but also work closely with outside stakeholders. International interdependencies and global value chains and thus private companies are increasingly important for security of supply. As a result, ensuring security of supply requires increased collaboration and cooperation between countries, businesses, and NGOs. This would involve sharing information and resources, coordinating response efforts, and working together to address potential threats and vulnerabilities. The agency should work to ensure the continued functioning of the critical systems and services that are essential for maintaining the basic operations of society.
Similarly to NESA, an EU-level agency could maintain strategic stockpiles of critical goods and raw materials, facilitate joint procurement initiatives for essential supplies, conduct stress tests and simulations, and establish a centralized information-sharing platform for relevant stakeholders. Such an EU-level agency would increase deterrence by reducing vulnerabilities that malicious actors could exploit, improving overall resilience to potential threats, identifying and assessing potential risks to critical systems, and coordinating collective preparedness efforts.
Policy Recommendation 2: Integrate Security Into the EU Policymaking Process
Currently, regular EU legislative initiatives are not analyzed through a security lens. This naivete is untenable, and the EU should therefore introduce security impact assessments, which the European Commission would be tasked with performing together with relevant agencies.
A security impact assessment would be a process that evaluates the potential effects of a proposed policy on the security of the EU. It would identify potential risks and vulnerabilities associated with proposals and analyze the potential consequences of the risks and include risk mitigation recommendations. The assessments could either be integrated into established European Commission impact assessment processes and documents or take inspiration from other security7 or risk analysis frameworks.8
Security impact assessments would improve risk management and the quality of decision-making, enhance transparency and accountability, reduce the risk of unintended negative consequences, and ultimately improve security and resilience, and thus also deterrence.
Most challenges related to developing strategic autonomy and deterrence are suboptimal outcomes that arise from the institutional framework of the European Union. One glaring example is the consensus-based decision-making mechanism within foreign and defense policy, which gives a de facto veto to intransigent member states.
The EU should move towards Qualified Majority Voting in matters of security and defense. It would result in more prompt and efficient decision-making, and it would remove the member state veto.
Since a change of the voting rules would require either treaty change or the use of the so-called passerelle clauses, which both require unanimity, there is a relatively high hurdle standing in the way of achieving this change.9 However, European leaders must have the courage to open the door for institutional reform. The current security environment and the prospect of future threats certainly make a compelling case for reform.
The EU and NATO have become increasingly synergistic organizations. After Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO, only four EU member states remain outside of the alliance: Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, and Malta. The deepening cooperation between NATO and the EU is enshrined in multiple strategy documents, including the two most recent: the EU’s Strategic Compass10 and NATO’s Strategic Concept.11 Still, as commentators have noted,12, 13 there is a need to further deepen the cooperation.
If the US were to significantly decrease its military and security presence in Europe, it would be even more important for NATO-EU cooperation to be much closer than it is today. Relying on NATO and further developing the CSDP does not have to be mutually exclusive. Strengthening defense capabilities of member states and the EU would help Europe become a more valuable member of the alliance while also increasing its sovereignty. Furthermore, the EU can defend its interests more effectively by being a stronger contributor to global security. By proving to be a valuable member of NATO, the Union will find itself in a better position to defend its interests within the organization.
The development of military technology that can address new threats, such as hybrid and cyber attacks, would be a valuable contribution to global security. By mobilizing the resources and expertise that the Union already has and investing in new capabilities to address the increasingly unstable global climate, the EU and its member states could more efficiently fulfill their commitments to NATO and thus strengthen transatlantic trust.
Having early detection intelligence capabilities is important because it provides awareness of potential threats and the ability to incapacitate them before they materialize. Intelligence coordination is something of a blind spot in the European security architecture. NATO member states share intelligence to different degrees, but most intelligence relationships are bilateral and opaque.
The EU has a very limited role in intelligence. The Strategic Compass envisages some further actions related to intelligence. The problem with both existing and proposed initiatives is three-fold: they are dependent on voluntary participation, they only give the EU a coordinating role, and they are either intended to provide static reviews or react to events as they happen. Additionally, they are likely to be perennially underfunded.
European policymakers should thus either empower the Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity and make it an independent agency or establish a new central European intelligence agency. This agency should be well-funded and have the authority to detect, analyze, and respond to threats as they occur. Importantly, to provide a real deterrent effect, the agency also needs to be empowered to act offensively. That would entail a significant shift of competencies from member states to the EU. Taking an incremental approach, the agency should initially be given the ability to develop offensive capabilities in the cyber realm, to complement the Cyber Defence Policy of the EU.
While some might argue that this is a politically unrealistic proposal, the EU needs to evolve in lockstep with the changing security landscape. Without an empowered European intelligence capability, the EU will have a glaring capability gap vis-à-vis its geopolitical rivals and remain de facto dependent on American and British intelligence
The European project is at a crossroads. Authoritarianism is rearing its ugly head, technological development is dispersing power, and war has returned to Europe. Navigating this complex environment requires nimbleness and adaptiveness, but also strategic foresight. The EU has helped guarantee stability on the continent for decades not through remaining static, but by open-mindedly reinventing itself. European leaders must once again find this spirit.
The United States and China are not passively reacting to world events, but actively shaping them. In contrast, the EU tends to react to what the two superpowers and even regional actors like Russia, do. This must change, not just if the U.S. reduces its presence in Europe. The EU must move from a reactive to a proactive posture.
The EU needs to pair the tactical capacities developed particularly after Putin’s illegal invasion with a new grand strategy. The goal should be to achieve sufficient strategic autonomy for Europe and create deterrence against bad actors, to generate space for multilateralism, free trade, the rules-based international order, human rights, and other important values to flourish. Strategies, however, are not built overnight, but the five steps outlined in this article would contribute to this imperative strategic transformation.
Photo credit: Christian Lue via Unsplash
“A Strategic Compass for Security and Defence.” The European Union, March 2022.
Analysis and Research Team. “Strategic Autonomy, Strategic Choices.” Issues Paper. Council of the European Union General Secretariat, February 5, 2021.
“Climate Change & Security Impact Assessment.” The Secretary General’s Report. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, n.d. https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2022/6/pdf/280622-climate-impact-assessment.pdf.
De Maio, Giovanni. “Opportunities to Deepen NATO-EU Cooperation.” The New Geopolitics. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, n.d. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/FP_20211203_nato_eu_cooperation_demaio.pdf.
Lambrinoudakis, Costas, Stefanos Gritzalis, Sokratis Xenakis, Maria Karyda, Aggeliki Tsochou, Kostas Papadatos, Konstantinos Rantos, et al. “Compendium of Risk Management Frameworks with Potential Interoperability.” The European Union Agency for Cybersecurity, n.d. https://www.enisa.europa.eu/publications/compendium-of-risk-management-frameworks/@@download/fullReport.
Lopez, C. Todd. “Defense Secretary Says ‘Integrated Deterrence’ Is Cornerstone of U.S. Defense.” Government website. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (blog), n.d. https://www.pacom.mil/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/2593958/defense-secretary-says-integrated-deterrence-is-cornerstone-of-us-defense/.
Mintel, Julina, and Nicolai von Ondarza. “More EU Decisions by Qualified Majority Voting – but How?” German Institute for International and Security Affairs, October 2022. https://www.swp-berlin.org/publications/products/comments/2022C61_EUQualifiedMajorityVoting.pdf
“NATO 2022 Strategic Concept.” NATO, June 2022. https://www.nato.int/strategic-concept/.
Ojanen, Hanna. “NATO and the EU’s Strength Lies in Their Unity.” ENGAGE (blog), n.d. https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/87403.
Simón, Luis. “The Ukraine War and the Future of the European Union’s Security and Defense Policy.” Center for Strategic and International Studies (blog), January 30, 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/ukraine-war-and-future-european-unions-security-and-defense-policy.
 Lopez, “Defense Secretary Says ‘Integrated Deterrence’ Is Cornerstone of U.S. Defense.”
 Simón, “The Ukraine War and the Future of the European Union’s Security and Defense Policy.”
 “A Strategic Compass for Security and Defence.”
 “NATO 2022 Strategic Concept.”
 Analysis and Research Team, “Strategic Autonomy, Strategic Choices.”
 European Union Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators: https://www.acer.europa.eu/electricity/security-of-supply
 “Climate Change & Security Impact Assessment.”
 Lambrinoudakis et al., “Compendium of Risk Management Frameworks with Potential Interoperability.”
 Mintel and von Ondarza, “More EU Decisions by Qualified Majority Voting – but How?”
 “A Strategic Compass for Security and Defence.”
 “NATO 2022 Strategic Concept.”
 De Maio, “Opportunities to Deepen NATO-EU Cooperation.”
 Ojanen, “NATO and the EU’s Strength Lies in Their Unity.”