Joe Biden’s U.S. election victory has triggered renewed debate across the Atlantic over Europe’s role on the world stage.
With Donald Trump in the White House, French President Emmanuel Macron led a push for European "strategic autonomy” — the idea that the EU should be able to operate more independently, becoming more militarily powerful, building up global corporate giants and securing its own key supply chains. Macron’s case was bolstered by the argument that Europe could no longer rely on the U.S. as an international partner.
On the other side of the debate stand Europe’s Atlanticists, who argue that strategic autonomy is a dangerous and unrealistic concept and that the continent’s interests are best served by a close alliance with Washington.
Biden’s victory might be expected to put wind in their sails, given he has championed international cooperation and pledged to restore close ties with America’s traditional allies. But it’s the pro-strategic autonomy camp that has been out in force in recent days, arguing that the election doesn’t change, or even bolsters, their case.
"We can’t allow Europe to be depending on some thousand voters in Nevada, Arizona or Pennsylvania in the future,” said Enrico Letta, former prime minister of Italy and president of the Jacques Delors Institute think tank in Paris.
In public, at least, many leaders stress that this does not have to be an either-or choice — that it’s possible to pursue strategic autonomy while also maintaining close relations with the United States. Some even argue that a more powerful Europe would also be a more valuable ally for Washington. But the emphasis that leaders place on one element or the other in the debate reveals major differences in their worldviews.
In broad terms, Macron, French European Commissioner Thierry Breton, European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell are all strong proponents of strategic autonomy. Among the skeptics: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, plus leaders in the Baltics and Central and Eastern Europe, who believe only NATO and the U.S. can protect them from Russia.
"The further you go away from France, the strategic assessment changes,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "Even Germany without the American nuclear umbrella has zero deterrence. And I haven’t heard the French extending their nuclear umbrella to Germany.”
But advocates of strategic autonomy have warned against thinking that Biden’s win means the continent can go back to an era of relying on Uncle Sam.
Michel, a close ally of Macron, declared there should be "no euphoria” over the coming change at the White House. "Let us remain lucid. The United States are changing, Europe is changing... Our respective visions and interests will not always converge,” he told EU ambassadors last week in a speech making the case for strategic autonomy.
Borrell, addressing the European Parliament on the U.S. election, declared, "We have to proceed with our work to enhance what we call Europe’s strategic autonomy.”
"This means our ability to act and to defend ourselves effectively and, at the same time, to work together with the United States,” he said.
French Europe Minister Clément Beaune, meanwhile, warned Europe against acting "like a child expecting an adult on the other side of the Atlantic to provide some kind of reward or benevolence.”
But the tone has been quite different on the other side of the Rhine, at least from Merkel and senior members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who have stressed the importance of transatlantic ties.
In her first reaction to Biden’s win, the chancellor described transatlantic friendship as "indispensable if we are to deal with the major challenges of our time.” In later remarks, Merkel stressed repeatedly that the U.S. and Germany, as part of the European Union, must stand "side by side.”
Merkel also said Europe must do more for its own security and to stand up for its own values — but she cast these efforts as a way for Europeans to take more responsibility within the transatlantic partnership.
Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU party chair and a close associate of Merkel, was blunter in an op-ed for POLITICO published shortly before the U.S. election in anticipation of a renewed debate in Europe following the vote.
"Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider,” she declared flatly.
But Berlin’s position is not set in stone and the next year will go a long way to determining how Germany, and therefore Europe, views the issue in the longer term.
Merkel is due to retire in less than a year and much hinges on who wins an ongoing contest to become the next CDU leader, putting them in pole position to become the next chancellor.
Other German parties are already more sympathetic to the idea of strategic autonomy, including the Social Democrats, the junior partners in Merkel’s coalition, and the Greens, hotly tipped to enter government after an election next fall.
Franziska Brantner, the Greens’ spokesperson for EU affairs in the Bundestag, wrote in response to Kramp-Karrenbauer’s op-ed that putting faith in continuing U.S. protection is "wishful thinking.”
"We have to define what defense and deterrent capabilities are needed to guarantee our territorial integrity and create European synergies to obtain these,” Brantner wrote. "What Europe needs now is not more dependence on an unreliable partner, but more European sovereignty.”
Gaullists vs Atlanticists
While the debate over Europe’s future direction is highly topical, it is also a
continuation of a struggle going back decades — between Gaullists inspired by former French President Charles de Gaulle and suspicious of America’s role in Europe, and Atlanticists who championed close ties with Washington to protect Europe in the Cold War.
"This reminds me very much about the late 50s, early 60s, when in German conservatism there was a split between the Atlanticists and the Gaullists,” said Kleine-Brockhoff. "What we will see now is the revival of that debate, there’s a pull and push.”
The mantra of strategic autonomy has also spilled over from defense and security to economic policy — and here the French and German positions are more aligned.
The main idea is that the European Union should become more competitive by promoting industrial champions, countering U.S. dominance in tech and fending off competition from Chinese imports. To do so, the EU is upgrading its arsenal with new antitrust rules in the digital domain, greater trade defense powers, and plans to revise state aid rules to allow more public funding to flow to European industrial ventures.
Brussels has signaled it will push ahead with these plans, regardless of the upcoming change in the White House.
"While many things may change after the outcome of last week’s election in the United States, the race for technological supremacy is here to stay,” Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said Thursday.
Bruno Le Maire and Peter Altmaier, the French and German economy ministers, have been spearheading the strategic autonomy push, launching joint investment projects in areas as diverse as batteries, hydrogen, and cloud technology. But this branch of strategic autonomy is not without its critics either — reflecting a broader suspicion among some EU countries that the bloc’s heavyweights see the policy as a vehicle to advance their own national interests, such as the health of their big companies, rather than those of Europe as a whole.
Smaller, more liberal countries see thinly-disguised protectionism that could harm smaller European businesses and curb free trade.
If Europe is to become more autonomous and competitive, "France and Germany have to invest their political energy not only when it comes to Siemens or Alstom or direct Franco-German interests ... they have to consider it in more global terms,” said Letta, Italy’s former prime minister.