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How to ensure European security amid global turmoil?

In an increasingly complex and multi-faceted world, Europe’s ability to secure its interests goes beyond traditional military capabilities.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in front of destroyed Russian military vehicles exhibited in Kyiv. Securing European safety and interests, however, goes beyond military capabilities. 

Foto: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Reuters / NTB

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked a pivotal moment for European security, exposing the urgent need for a robust security framework.

Amid this era of a changing and increasingly multipolar world order, marked by intense geopolitical rivalry, the concept of European strategic autonomy has gained prominence.

In the new book European Actorness in a Shifting Geopolitical Order (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), NUPI Research Professor Pernille Rieker and University of Oslo Doctoral Research Fellow Mathilde T.E. Giske delve into the multifaceted nature of European actorness – understood as European sovereignty or strategic autonomy – in a changing geopolitical landscape.

They find that securing European safety and interests goes beyond conventional defence strategies and includes the ability to counter hybrid threats as well as military ones. 


Protect itself and support its friends

A global pandemic, cyber warfare, misinformation, or political destabilisation tactics – these are all threats with which the EU must contend. With emerging non-military and hybrid security frontlines, European actorness must then extend beyond mere defence capabilities. 

“Although the need to bolster security mechanisms is widely recognized following Russia's aggressive military stance, the hybrid nature of current threats, necessitates a broader approach to security,” says Pernille Rieker.

“To prepare for hybrid threats, the EU needs to work together more closely, not just within its own countries but also with its neighbours and allies, like the US and non-EU European states,” Giske further explains.

“This means being ready to act on its own when necessary but also working as a team with others. Europe must be able to protect itself and support its friends at the same time.” 


Duplicating NATO?

Still, the idea of European strategic autonomy has been met with scepticism and controversy. Some fear it could weaken transatlantic ties, as expressed by NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, fearing EU security measures would duplicate NATO structures:

“The backbone of NATO is the command structure. Today, we struggle to have it fully and properly operational. If we start building a parallel command structure within the EU, then you end up with two half-staffed structures. Two halves don't make a whole. That's two useless command structures," Stoltenberg told the audience at a public event linked to NATO’s informal meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Oslo in May 2023. 

Rieker and Giske, on the other hand, argue that European strategic autonomy – understood as Europe’s ability to ensure its security and uphold its values and interests in a complex, interconnected world, while enhancing its role as a reliable and proactive partner in international affairs – will reinforce, not replace, transatlantic ties.

"It's about ensuring that Europe can independently handle a wider array of security challenges, which ultimately contributes to a stronger, more reliable partnership within the NATO framework," says Giske.


Enhanced preparedness through flexible modes of cooperation

In essence, Europe should be ready to handle an array of different safety issues on its own, while still teaming up with friends and neighbours when needed. 

Such flexible cooperation, known as differentiated integration, allows different levels of collaboration both within the EU itself as well as between the EU and non-EU states. This allows the actors to suit their unique capabilities and security needs, and enhances Europe’s ability to:

  1. Get ready for all kinds of trouble: Be prepared for a wide range of threats, not just traditional military ones, but also cyber threats, misinformation, economic pressures, and health emergencies.
  2. Integrate different policy areas: Security strategies should include everything from trade to climate adaptability and health to build overall resilience.
  3. Make better decisions, faster: Improve the EU's ability to make and implement decisions, ensuring it can act swiftly and effectively to crises.
  4. Build regional security: Strengthen ties and security cooperation with neighboring countries to create a stable regional environment.
  5. Strengthen existing alliances: Keep its strong friendships with allies like the United States while maintaining and strengthening alliances such as NATO.

The authors conclude that European strategic autonomy in the current geopolitical landscape is a complex but achievable task.

“By handling its own security issues and contributing to global stability, Europe will continue to be seen as a reliable friend and trustworthy partner in a chaotic world,” Rieker points out.