European Council President Charles Michel declared Saturday that “2022 will be the year of European defense” — a blunt acknowledgement that EU leaders must confront widespread doubts that Europe can protect itself militarily.
Michel’s comments, in a speech at the ceremony to award this year’s Charlemagne Prize to Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, come as the 27 EU heads of state and government are due to discuss European defense and security over dinner Tuesday at a summit in Slovenia.
Longstanding worries about Europe’s military capabilities and a lack of coordination between EU member countries have recently returned to the center of political discussions following the chaotic and rushed U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan. Compounding tension was the announcement by Washington of a new Indo-Pacific strategic alliance with the U.K. and Australia that blindsided EU allies, notably France.
But as he called for greater strategic autonomy in his speech on Saturday, Michel also seemed to concede that Europe’s primary source of power will always be its pocketbook, not its firearms.
“We want less dependency. We want more influence, because we have values to promote — they are strong as we just said — interests to defend, and citizens to protect,” Michel said. “Our greater autonomy must be based on two strategic pillars — social economic development and security. The first pillar is economic and social.”
“The second pillar is that of our security,” Michel added. “The Atlantic Alliance is its backbone. Strengthening Defensive Europe means strengthening the Alliance. Stronger allies make stronger alliances. 2022 therefore will be the year of European defense.”
Michel also directly addressed the deep and historic divisions among EU member countries over “strategic autonomy.”
“We know that strategic autonomy, this expression can have various connotations, can also sometimes be the subject of misunderstandings, incomprehensions, perhaps even suspicions,” he said. “Those in favor of greater European strategic autonomy suspect that sometimes those who seem more reluctant want to slow down integration.. And others see in greater empowerment the risk of weakening our Atlantic Alliance.”
Michel said the dinner on Tuesday would begin a discussion among leaders that would address a new declaration of strategic partnership between the EU and NATO and culminate at a summit in Brussels in March.
“Our goal of greater autonomy is not new,” Michel said, noting that leaders had endorsed the concept previously, including at a 2019 summit in Sibiu, Romania, where Iohannis was the host.
“We will protect our citizens and ensure their security by investing in our power to convince and our power to compel, and by working together with our international partners,” Michel said.
His reference to international partners was designed to reassure EU countries that believe their security can be guaranteed only by the U.S. Whether those countries are prepared to change that fundamental premise anytime soon remains to be seen.