European strategic autonomy in the shadow of Covid-19: Three lessons and one conclusion

Ben Tonra | 16 November 2020


Ben Tonra took part in an expert panel discussion on ‘Covid-19 and European Strategic Autonomy’ in October 2020 as part of The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy 2020 series on ‘Peace, security and defence during and beyond the Covid-19 Crisis: Lessons for future global crises’. He argues that the pandemic has underlined the challenges to deeper security and defence cooperation while again highlighting its urgent necessity. He concludes that the Union needs to embrace its own nature as a multi-sovereign polity rather than speaking the foreign language of ‘power’.


I take three lessons from our experience of the pandemic as it relates to European strategic autonomy and Ireland’s role therein – none of which in itself is surprising, but which together may plot a path forward.

Lesson one: Borders matter

The first lesson is blindingly obvious, but we need to be reminded – the capacity of states to control what crosses their borders is key. While this may seem to be a somewhat old fashioned take-away, the travel bans, lockdowns, and controls on cross-border movement that we have witnessed underscore a central reality: the physical control of territorial borders still matters. This is a basic function and one which our national populations value and place store in. The first lesson then, in security terms, is that borders matter.

Lesson two: Differing risk assessment among EU Member States

The second lesson (again, not rocket science) is that EU Member States differ. EU Member States have taken strikingly diverse paths in their assessment of different types of risk. Across Europe there have been vigorous, sometimes fraught and sometimes even violent debates over risk assessment; should we lock-down and what and how do we lock-down? Much of this debate has centred on the very difficult question of how does public health security relate to wider public wellbeing? How are we to balance an effective and robust public health response to the pandemic while ensuring social solidarity and doing the least damage to peoples’ livelihoods and mental health? These debates have been playing out across Europe and, for a variety of reasons, different balances are being struck and different strategies being attempted.

This reminds us that European heterogeneity matters – and will not be abridged. This is even the case in a ‘hard science’ domain such as public health which one would assume was furthest removed from the decision-warping considerations of politics, culture, and history. In fact, we have seen only too sharply that politics matters even where we are relying on science to offer us clear and decisive public policy answers. Thus, the second lesson – in security terms – is to remind us that we lack a common European strategic culture.

A contradictory lesson three: European cooperation is urgently needed

The third lesson – on the face of it – is contradictory to the first two and this is that there has never been greater need and urgency for European cooperation, even integration. No medium to long term solution to the pandemic will happen without cooperation. Europe has learned from its COVID experience and is already adapting policies and decision-making infrastructure so as to respond more effectively to the next crisis.  To paraphrase the words of the American revolutionary, Benjamin Franklin; what we have learned is that if European states do not hang together they will most certainly hang separately.

The purchasing power, resources, financial and geopolitical weight of the Union – while deployed late and in a policy area of weakest EU competence – have been central to the European battle against the virus and its consequences. Europe has had to come together and has done so successfully. Thus, my third and final lesson – in security terms – is that Europe is central to Member States’ security and defence.

So what does this mean in terms of ‘Strategic Autonomy’ and Ireland?

So what conclusion does one draw, in terms of so-called ‘Strategic Autonomy’, for a state such as Ireland?  Here I can be stark and brief. First, there is no effective national defence – in its broadest sense – without the EU. Second, a European Union defence cannot and will not be constructed on Westphalian state-like lines. To my mind, debates on using qualified majority voting (QMV) in foreign security and defence policy are not just premature but potentially dangerous. Moreover, I would argue, the ‘language of power’ which the Union is being exhorted to speak by some, is truly a foreign tongue to a Union of 27 sovereign states.

The key is that ‘Europe’ must be ready to offer real, substantive added value to national defence capacity and, therein, act as a catalyst towards real defence integration. That is a prospect on which the Union can deliver and which will go some way to delivering strengthened security and defence to its members.

About the Author

Ben Tonra is Professor of International Relations at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations and Distinguished Fellow at The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy