The shift of the transatlantic link on defense

The shift of the transatlantic link on defense: From dependency to autonomy


01 | 02 | 2024


Without questioning NATO in collective defense, and clearly intensifying cooperation with it, the EU is seeking a level of strategic autonomy

En la imagen

NATO headquarters in Brussels [US State Dpt]

The purpose of this essay is to address the evolution of the European defense strategies reflected in the European Security Strategy, the EU Global Strategy, and the Strategic Compass. Particularly, how the relationship between the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been approached, an alliance on which the defense of the Old Continent has rested for decades and where the role of the United States and its priorities in security policy have been fundamental. More precisely, it will be analyzed how the EU has shifted from depending on the United States through the OTAN to assuming its role and seeking autonomy in defense. The main thesis contended is that there is a big shift on the CPSD of the EU from the strategy of 2003 to the one of 2022 in which the Union is determined to become a strong and capable security provider with autonomy in the decision-making process. 

The European Security Strategy 

Firstly, the main idea reflected is that the United States is playing a significant role, primarily through NATO.[1]However, the Atlantic Alliance is not as central in this first strategy as in the other two. Despite being recognized for its importance in the Balkan crisis,[2] it is mentioned alongside with the Union itself, Russia, the US, and other international actors.  Furthermore, as the Strategy describes a large-scale aggression against one Member State as “improbable,”[3] NATO is not given a special role and there is no explicit mention of probable EU-NATO coordination in dealing with the identified threats such as terrorism.[4] In other words, it offers an international order based on effective multilateralism in which NATO is just another actor included. 

Secondly, the Alliance is addressed while discussing the EU's operational capabilities, which need to be reinforced with greater resources and more effective utilization. The permanent EU-NATO arrangements, particularly the Berlin Plus agreements will be one approach to strengthen them.[5] Which on the one hand, meant gaining access to resources the EU did not have, but it also represented a dependency on the US and a constraint in its autonomy and flexibility in preparing crisis management missions of its own.[6]  Consequently, it can be argued that the relationship was weaker: the US had to take on more defense spending as European countries were not meeting the criteria of the 2% of the GDP.[7]

Finally, ​​the political disparities of Member States prevented the EU from assuming a leading role in defense. Any attempt to enhance security cooperation in the EU was seen by some MS, in particular the United Kingdom, as an attempt to weaken the role of the Atlantic Alliance and, by extension, the influence of the United States in European defense. Consequently, the paper of 2003 reflects the disparity of currents of thought within the Union, in which not all MS recognized the need to arm themselves so as to be more effective, but always relied on the protective umbrella of the United States.

The EU Global Strategy 

Despite being published in a moment of political instability among the Union due to Brexit, it turned into an opportunity.[8] The Union opened the door to an unprecedented development of the Union's defense capabilities. The document is the starting point for the definition of a future foreign and security policy of the Union, including its defense policy.[9] The EU global strategy deepens the compromise of the European Union to be the main actor on its defense, thus affecting its transatlantic relations.[10] 

On the one hand, it argues that Europeans, working with their partners, must have sufficient capabilities to defend themselves and meet the expectations arising from the mutual assistance and solidarity commitments of the treaties to which they are party. [11] In other words, the Strategy lists the security of the Union as the first priority of its external action as can be reflected throughout it in terms such as “we must take greater responsibility for our security” or “although NATO exists to defend its members, we, Europeans, must be better equipped, trained and organized to contribute decisively to such collective efforts, as well as to act autonomously when necessary.”[12] Consequently, it breaks with the previous policy and assumes that it must be able to act alone, if necessary, even without the United States.[13] This is a big shift on European security and defense policy.

On the other hand, the strategy makes an important review of the relations between the European Union and NATO, from an approach that is new compared to previous documents: the ambition of strategic autonomy for the European Union. This is a novelty compared to the 2015 report ‘The European Union in a changing global environment,’[14] which does not contain the word autonomy even once. In the text of the Strategy, the idea of strategic autonomy is mentioned up to five times, which is also present twice in the executive summary and the High Representative: “The Strategy nurtures the ambition of strategic autonomy for the European Union.” This idea is projected on everything that has to do with the development of European defense in the text and in its NATO relationship.

The EU-NATO alliance is extensively and explicitly addressed in the Strategy. It is not at all questioned that NATO is the main framework for cooperation in terms of collective defense for most of the Member States of the Union that are also NATO members.[15] The EU's willingness to deepen the partnership with NATO is expressly stated, but it is also very clearly stated that the EU must make an effort both to be able to act autonomously, to carry out actions in cooperation with NATO or to contribute better within NATO.[16] In other words, they deepen its commitment by seeking a European defense credible, effective, and responsive. The desire for autonomy and the strengthening of European defense advocated by the Strategy are much clearer than on other occasions, but they are also put forward as the best way to strengthen the transatlantic link and balance the effort: “A more credible European defense is also essential to maintain a healthy transatlantic partnership with the United States.” Therefore, the Union strengthens the transatlantic alliance by being stronger.[17] To conclude, the European Union, by assuming that it must be in charge of the defense of Europe, improves the transatlantic link at becoming a strong ally on which the US can rely and not a burden.

Lastly, the strategies reflect the idea that depending on an ally like the United States, with whom it maintains a close community of values and interests in some areas, but with whom it competes in others, in an increasingly global and complex world is not enough. Because the United States no longer has its center of attention in Europe but in Asia[18] as reflected in Obama’s Pivot to Asia.[19] Although the current Russia forces it to be more present than it would like.[20] Its priorities are already in other arenas, and it makes sense for it to consider why it has to remain the security provider of one of the world's major economic areas, which does not want to assume its share of responsibility in the common organization, the Atlantic Alliance.

The Strategic Compass

It is not designed to replace the EU Global Strategy but to further improve it,[21] especially as the recent geopolitical shifts marked by the invasion of Ukraine have shown that the EU urgently needs to take more responsibility for its own security by acting in its neighborhood and beyond, with partners whenever possible and alone when necessary. 

Moreover, the compass reflects the spirit of the Union, which gives more importance to multilateralism than to bilateral alliances, as can be deduced from its reading. The reason behind is that the global threats faced are escalating, and the individual capacity of Member States to address them is both insufficient and diminishing. Hence, it is crucial for Europeans to invest in enhancing their collective ability to think, decide, and act strategically. Therefore, the consequences of adopting a 'non-Europe' approach, are indisputable It is firmly believed that a substantial advancement in security and defense is required, akin to other significant leaps made in European history. The hope is that this Strategic Compass will aid them in facing their security responsibilities, both in front of their citizens and the rest of the world. If not now, then when?

The realization of a ‘geopolitical Europe,’ a goal passionately pursued by the present European Commission since its inception in Brussels at the close of 2019, appears to be finally on the horizon.


In conclusion, as far as the relationship between the EU and NATO is concerned, the 2016 and 2022 strategies opt for a clear path: strong development of the CSDP, without questioning NATO in collective defense, intensifying cooperation with it, but seeking a level of strategic autonomy that has never been so clearly proposed, which is necessary to defend its own interests. A reinforcement of European defense is essential to support the role of the Union in the new international context, where soft power is not enough, to defend itself against new threats and to balance the European weight in a NATO fundamentally supported by the United States. To sum up, the last two strategies are a statement of intent towards NATO, and consequently towards the United States. The European Union is aware of its potential as a global actor in defense and the strategies are the means to that end, as stated by Mr. Borrell, the EU is ready to fill the space and be active and effective in promoting its interests. 

It is now the time to prove that what is written on paper will be carried out.


[1] European Council, European Security Strategy - A secure Europe in a better world, 2003, p.1-42

[2] Freire, María Raquel. y Galantino, María Grazia: “Introduction: The Role of the EU in International Peace and Security”, en Freire, María Raquel y Galantino, María Grazia (2015): Managing Crisis, Making Peace. Towards a Strategic EU Vision for Security and Defense, Basingstok, Palgrave, p. 4.

[3] EU Institute for Security Studies (2016): Towards an EU Global Strategy. Consulting the experts, Paris, EUISS,, p.13-19

[4] Aldecoa, Francisco: “Una política de defensa europea compatible con la Alianza Atlántica”, en VV. AA. (2015): UE-EEUU: Una relación indispensable para la paz y la estabilidad mundiales, Cuadernos de Estrategia, no. 177, IEES/USP-CEU. file:///Users/isabelgonzalez-ripa/Downloads/Dialnet-UnaPoliticaDeDefensaEuropeaCompatibleConLaAlianzaA-5255544.pdf  p.9-21

[5] European Union. External Action: About CSPD-The Berlin Plus Agreement, in, p.1

[6] Drent, Margriet (2015): “EU-NATO Relations in Crisis Management Operations: The Practice of Informality”, en Freire, María Raquel y Galantino, María Grazia, op. cit. p. 96.

[7] Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016), NATO, Press Release PR/CP (2016) 116, 4 July 2016, en

[8] Missiroli, Antonio (ed.) (2015): Towards an EU Global Strategy. Background, process, references, EU Institute for Security Studies, Paris, 2015, p. 39.

[9] Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy,, p2-51

[10] Garcia, Javier (2016), La Union Europea Y La Otan En El Marco De La Nueva Estrategia Global De La Unión Europea, Revista UNISCI / UNISCI Journal, No 42, p.1-22

[11] Thierry Tardy, “Civilan CSDP: what next?” “, p.1-4

[12] Pawlak, Patric: “A Global Strategy on foreign and security policy for the EU”, Briefing, European Parliamentary Research Service, EPRS, April 2016 p.1-2

[13] The European Union in a changing global environment. A more connected, contested and complex World, Strategic assessment of HR/VP in preparation of the 2016 EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy of June 2015,

[14] Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, 07-53

[15] Active Engagement, Modern Defence. Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO Summit in Lisbon, 19-20 November 2010 p.10-32

[16] Valasek, Tomas: “Introduction”, en Valasek, Tomas (ed) (2012), All alone? What US retrenchement means for Europe and NATO, London, Centre for European Reform, pp. 1-2

[17] Misiroli, Antonio: “Introduction”, EU Institute for Security Studies (2016): Strategy Matters. EU Key Documents 2015-2016 , Paris, EUISS,

[18] Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s “Rebalancing” Toward Asia, Congressional Research Service, March 28, 2012. p. 1,, p6-12

[19] Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, Department of Defense, USA, January 2012,

[20] Duke, Simon: “The Future of EU- NATO Relations”, European Integration, Vol. 30, No 1, March 2008, p. 33

[21] Zandee, D. et al, The EU's Strategic Compass for security and defence, Clingendael, May 2021. , P.9-52