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The EU’s Half-Hearted Quest for Defense Autonomy

The EU’s identity is hindering its ability to provide security to its members.

Words: Nick Lokker and Madison Sargeant
Pictures: Dimitri Iakymuk

The EU has been consistently ill-equipped to address the seemingly endless proliferation of crises on its periphery. As the US-dominated international order that traditionally allowed the EU to shun military power is increasingly contested by new centers of power, the bloc must adapt accordingly. While the EU can wield its economic and technological influence to manage power shifts and security threats, its shortcomings related to defense undermine its global position. The Union’s stubborn tendency to view itself predominantly as a normative power has hindered its ability to integrate defense capabilities at the supranational level. 

This posture as a non-military power is especially problematic when staring down an aggressive Russia, an authoritarian China, and an uncertain US commitment to European defense. The discourse on great power competition generally triangulates US, Chinese, and Russian power, sidelining the EU as a secondary security player. Yet, Brussels not only has the capability to navigate great power competition but might in fact benefit from competing as a US-aligned yet independent pole going forward — and the intensifying push for EU strategic autonomy illustrates that many Europeans are now coming to this conclusion. Already wielding significant influence in the economic and technological spheres, the EU can strengthen its position by addressing obstacles to its defense autonomy, including its identity as a uniquely non-military power. 


The EU’s self-image as a normative power is rooted in its origins as a peace project. Rejecting the idea of using force for political ends, the bloc emphasizes its unique status as a “civilian,” “post-modern,” or “ethical” power. In practice, this has entailed a foreign policy based on promoting norms such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. While these are worthy aims, EU leaders tend to treat them as an alternative, rather than a complement, to military power. This choice causes the EU to be excluded from discussions on hard power issues. For example, Brussels has been largely absent during the ongoing negotiations aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the threat posed by Russia’s military buildup near the Ukrainian border. Without military clout to back them up, the EU’s diplomatic efforts are destined to continue falling flat in the face of powers like Russia that only respect brute strength. Brussels, therefore, lacks not only the ability to contribute militarily, but also the foundations of a legitimate diplomatic platform from which to advocate for its vital interests.

The potential for EU military power exists, especially since member states collectively outspend their Russian neighbor and routinely conduct military operations around the world, trailing only the US in total troop deployments. France’s deployments to the Sahel, European involvement in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and operations in the Indo-Pacific all indicate that the EU’s member states are not particularly defense-adverse. Yet, the full realization of EU military power is hampered by national policies and attitudes that reflect a bygone era.

A more contested world demands that the EU build up the final pillar of material power and take on greater responsibility for the bloc’s defense capacity.

The US has officially expressed support for increased EU defense autonomy while actively seeking to maintain Europe’s dependence on US arms manufacturers and the EU’s subordinate, rather than complementary, position to NATO. Those skeptical of EU defense within the bloc are eager to maintain NATO’s dominant role. And despite becoming increasingly state-like, the EU struggles to wrestle defense authority from its member states, even though many Europeans view defense as an EU issue rather than a national one. For these EU citizens, its collective security is best addressed by the political entity that directly represents EU interests, not just those of individual member states or the broader transatlantic alliance. These conditions — both a cause and a symptom of the way European citizens and political leaders view EU defense — have impeded the EU’s ability to develop defense autonomy. 

Nevertheless, the EU qualifies as a superpower by most measures. In 2017, the bloc represented 16% of world GDP, surpassed only by China and the US. While this portion shrank slightly with Brexit, the EU maintains its position as the third-largest contributor to world GDP. Economic power is an end in itself, but it is also a means to shape diplomatic and military power. 

Furthermore, the EU is a technological superpower with respect to both innovation and regulation. As emerging and dual-use technologies increasingly shift the balance of power on and off the battlefield, the EU has the potential to occupy the roles of both player and referee. The EU has already recognized this, having created the European Defense Fund (EDF) to fund collaborative defense research and development to strengthen the EU defense technological and industrial bases. 


A more contested world demands that the EU build up the final pillar of material power and take on greater responsibility for the bloc’s defense capacity, both to guard against immediate security threats such as Russia, as well as to credibly back up its normative and economic initiatives. While many argue that European nations’ feeble capabilities stem from inadequate defense spending, defense industry fragmentation and reliance on national militaries are more immediate issues, resulting in a situation where European countries lack critical military enablers, such as strategic lift and refueling. 

Two EU initiatives launched in 2017 are a promising first step toward greater defense integration. Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) allows member states to collaborate on military capability development, while the EDF provides financing for collaborative defense research and development projects. Nonetheless, the bloc’s most recent Coordinated Annual Review on Defense revealed that these initiatives remain far from being implemented to their full potential, leaving true defense autonomy a distant ambition for the time being. 


The newly initiated French presidency of the Council of the European Union offers an opportunity to increase defense autonomy. French President Emmanuel Macron has emphasized that bolstering European defense will be a priority of the six-month presidency, and two key events — a Summit on EU Defense and the unveiling of the EU Strategic Compass — are slated to occur in the months ahead. Yet, this bold agenda risks resulting in more of the same: mere rhetoric rather than concrete outcomes.

To ensure tangible progress on defense, EU leaders should prioritize three sets of actions. First, Brussels should continue working toward a single market for the defense industry. The recent creation of a new defense industry and space portfolio in the Commission allows an opportunity for this by incentivizing member states to purchase European weapons systems and collaborate across borders on new weapons systems through the EU, mitigating protectionist pushback at the state level. 

Second, the EU should be selective about which foreign arms manufacturers it includes in its defense projects. A critical component of defense autonomy is a strong defense industrial base, and the EU’s base will not be realized as long as the US arms industry dominates the European market. This will be particularly necessary if the EU is to make its planned independent rapid deployment force operational. Third, the EU should capitalize on the precedent of the pandemic recovery fund to borrow money for EU defense investment, as Ben Haddad and Max Bergman recently suggested, in order to ensure that its existing defense initiatives, such as the EDF and PESCO, are well-funded.

The EU currently stakes its global image in its normative power. While that is not a bad thing, the bloc has the potential to build the material power to complement and back up its normative role. Despite views of the EU as a secondary power in the era of great power competition, Brussels has the means to be a great power player and should support its normative role with a stronger, unified military capability. In order to do so, Brussels must address institutional failings, such as its reliance on US-made weapons systems and a patchwork defense market, but most critically, the way it views itself. In an increasingly more complex world, the EU is a material and great power and ought to posture as one. 

Nick Lokker is a Researcher with the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. 

Madison Sargeant is a Master of Arts candidate in Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. She will commission as a surface warfare officer in the US Navy in December 2022.

Nick Lokker and Madison Sargeant

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