After Kabul’s Fall, Europe Rushes to Reopen its Grand ‘Strategic Autonomy’ Dossier
Simone Disegni 19 August 2021

There is a mixture of horror and disbelief among Europeans who, resting on their holiday deckchairs that suddenly seem offensive, are speechlessly watching the disintegration of a relatively distant country in the course of a handful of days, or perhaps weeks for those slightly less distracted. And for once that disbelief is the same for uninformed citizens, those who govern as well as a large part of the intelligence services. It is painful to think one has abandoned a population, even worse abandoned it to its worst phantoms. It is painful to think that one has been led into a ravine by one’s No. 1 ally, and even worse to think about having wasted twenty years of efforts, lives and energy, just like couples who separate suddenly after a long relationship and experience the vertigo of a lifetime slice that now appears to have been wasted. Perhaps this is not entirely true, as friends rush to tell one in such cases, and at least some of the seeds of freedom and democracy planted in Afghanistan will find a way to continue to blossom. What is however already certain is that this stupor experienced by Europeans will have political consequences. In fact this is already happening.

“It is not the European Union who decided to leave Afghanistan. It is not the European Union nor the Member States. It has been a decision of [former] President [of the United States, Donald] Trump, who negotiated this with the Taliban. And this decision was implemented later by the following American administration,” said the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell on Tuesday evening, answering a question posed by the only Afghan journalist in Brussels who, almost in tears, begged him not to acknowledge the new Taliban government under any circumstances. This is a tangible sign, simply the clearest one, of European irritation that has been increasing as weeks and days passed, moving towards the White House’s catastrophic management of withdrawal from Afghanistan. This irritation consists in fact of two elements: disillusionment, on the one hand, with a Democratic president who, after the nightmare of the Trump term was seen as the restorer of the transatlantic iron axis and liberal-democratic order in the world, evidently exceeding in enthusiasm; the awareness, on the other hand, of Europe’s own limits, its inability to have any influence at all on its own, other than marginally, on great world events requiring political-military involvement.

In the buildings in which debates turn rapidly concrete, such feelings are already being replaced by work involving the rehashing – for the moment theoretical – of Europe’s role in the world. Leaving aside Borrell’s opinions, it is worth taking a look at the heart of European power, Berlin. On Monday, even before Biden spoke live on television trying to explain to the world the sense of his decision, Chancellor Angela Merkel had already cleared the field of all misunderstandings as the first to openly speak of ‘widespread misjudgement’ regards to the timing and manner of the withdrawal. Behind the fragile wording of diplomatic etiquette, the meaning of analysis now emerging from German leadership – the CDU in primis – is certainly deeper. “Things haven’t just gone wrong — it’s a catastrophe. It’s a moral failure of the West — and the geopolitical consequences are still difficult to discern,  said on Wednesday a key member of the country’s governing party, Norbert Roettgen, President of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee. During those same hours the CDU deputy leader Johann Wadephul clarified with words that left nothing to the imagination what these consequences would be as far as Germany was concerned. “We have to acknowledge that the United States will no longer be the policeman of the world and help us to live here secure in Europe,” said Wadephul in an interview with Bloomberg, after chastising the U.S. for its total lack of consultation with its allies in planning the withdrawal. “For a country trained for decades to abstain from using its military power it will take a long time, but it is therefore obvious that Germany will have to do more as far as foreign policy and local security matters are concerned,” added the CDU leading figure.

While autonomous European military capability had always been a fixation for the French (a few more people will now perhaps forgive Emmanuel Macron for having already described NATO as “brain-dead” two years ago), it is worth adding that even in the United Kingdom such thoughts are gaining ground. “The fall of Kabul is the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez” wrote Tom Tugendhat, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee (and a Conservative too) in The Times, adding that it was time to “think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests, and we need to do it fast”. Former Minister Gavin Barwell echoed his thoughts on Twitter saying “It’s time to wake up. The lesson taught to Europeans is a clear one: whoever its president may be, the United States will no longer guarantee its support in those areas of the world in which it does not have vital interests”. And if for the moment those in Rome are observing the scenario with prudence directly proportional to its political-military influence (significantly smaller), it does not appear to be a coincidence that in the very hours in which Kabul was falling Italian government sources also carefully leaked to the press all the frustration experienced due to appeals made in previous months – all ignored by the Americans – begging them to extend Western military presence in Afghanistan at least partially so as to delay, if not avoid, a Taliban triumph (and the explosion of a possible migratory bomb).

After nine months spent dreaming with open eyes about Biden’s election, European governments – and with them, let that be said, most analysts and commentators  – now find themselves disillusioned and disappointed, including by themselves, and are preparing to rush to reopen those drawers in which they had locked away their plans for the real creation of the famous strategic autonomy. It may, after all, not be a bad thing for the health of transatlantic relations, as Max Bergmann notes in Politico. But it will certainyl be a lengthy and expensive journey, from any perspective.


Cover Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at their last bilateral meeting – Berlin, June 18, 2021 (John MACDOUGALL / AFP).

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