EU renews calls for defense autonomy – at risk of damaging relations with US

European leaders are once again calling for greater cooperation on defense, a move that risks damaging relations with the new U.S. administration under President Joe Biden.

"We reaffirm that, in the face of increased global instability, the EU needs to take more responsibility for its security," heads of state said in a statement at the end of a two-day virtual leaders' summit.

European Council President Charles Michel tried to offer assurances to the bloc's partners that the EU's "autonomy" would be "complementary" to its traditional alliances.

"We think if we are stronger as the European Union, it's good for NATO, it's good for the transatlantic partnership, because a strong partnership requires strong partners," he said after the meeting.

Europe is walking a tightrope as it balances a deepening desire for greater overall autonomy with the need to maintain strong ties with allies that play a critical role in maintaining the bloc's security and share similar values.

That friction played out over Twitter for all to see in December. As Europe closed in on an investment deal with China, the then-incoming Biden administration in the U.S. voiced its concerns.

Jake Sullivan, who now serves as President Joe Biden's national security adviser, tweeted that the new administration "would welcome early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China's economic practices."

European Council President Charles Michel, lleft, insists 'autonomy' would be 'complementary' to existing operations with partners like NATO, whose chief Jens Stoltenberg, right, has called for cooperation. (Photo: AP)

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, who joined the leaders' meeting, said the world's challenges are too big for one country to face alone.

"The threats we were faced with before the pandemic are still there: Russia's aggressive actions, more brutal forms of terrorism, sophisticated cyberattacks," he said ahead of the meeting. "No country or continent can face these challenges alone."

Debate over Europe's self-defense role

The exact role the bloc will play in defending itself is still up for debate – and has been for years.

France in particular has championed expanded military cooperation within the bloc, arguing that autonomy offers a shield from the whims of allies – with the confrontational administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump a glaring example.

Others – including top German official Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, once considered the heir apparent to outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel – have maintained that Europe's security is dependent on working with the U.S. rather than independently of it.

"Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end," she wrote in a commentary for Politico in November. "Europeans will not be able to replace America's crucial role as a security provider."

A U.S. soldier walks past U.S tanks being unloaded in Antwerp, Belgium en route to joint exercises in Eastern Europe – but EU members are calling for more 'self-defense' in future. (Photo: AP)

But EU ambitions around common defense are gathering steam. The latest EU budget sets aside $9.5 billion for a new defense fund to deepen military integration. It will allow for the joint development of weapons, deployments and sharing of information.

"I'm deeply convinced that one of our main weaknesses is the fragmentation of the different military systems," EUropean Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after the meeting.

Streamlining cross-border defenses is taking on new urgency as the security landscape evolves from traditional military protection to cyberthreats and disinformation.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought that tectonic shift into sharp focus and European leaders are hyper-aware of the damage disinformation is capable of causing. EU leaders on Friday pledged to double down on efforts to bolster their defenses, a unified approach to a common enemy.