EU strategic autonomy: a delusion or an attainable objective? – The concept examined through the prism of two recent and divergent crises

By Emanuel Skog

The concept of strategic autonomy traces its original genesis from the language associated with the common foreign and security policy and the common security and defence policy. It now appears to have turned into the EU’s novel catchphrase. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, did in no uncertain terms postulate that strategic autonomy for Europe is the objective of our generation. Though it is imperative to bear in mind that this statement did not emanate in a political vacuum, a growing number of analysts and politicians contend that the EU should develop and increase its strategic autonomy. The concept includes a more significant level for self-reliance, independence, and resilience in divergent domains inter alia trade, industrial policy, pharmaceuticals, and defence brought about by several incidents that have laid bare the EU’s vulnerabilities to exogenous shocks. The overarching idea to use the words of Thierry Breton, the European commissioner for the internal market, is to “avoid external dependencies in a new geopolitical context”.

Nevertheless, prior to engaging in a more comprehensive analysis, it is noteworthy that the exact conceptual meaning of strategic autonomy continues to be ambiguously defined. Within here exists the embryo for continuing and future potential increased friction amongst the Union’s member states. Furthermore, it is worth contemplating if the development and implementation of the concept is a pipe dream or an attainable objective for the Union as it appears to try and chart a more autonomous path globally? 

What is in a name? 

Amongst European policymakers, the definition of the concept centres on the capability to act; however, in so doing, they conflate two distinct aspects of policy. Within the domains of defence and politics, the concept indicates a build-up of capacities. Additionally, more broadly it encompasses the ability to make its own decisions, underpinned by the necessary capabilities available to properly operate independently when required. Nevertheless, amongst some EU member states, predominantly Baltic and Eastern ones, there is opposition to the potential of the Union adopting a more muscular military posture and autonomy since they contend that duplication would translate into the weakening of NATO, an assessment additionally shared by the US. This situation underscores already in place firmly entrenched viewpoints and fault lines pitting the idea of the EU as a more capable European security provider against NATO, which has since its inception functioned as the ultimate security guarantor on the European continent.  

Though, in the economic and other domains, the concept is used to imply a pursuit for a lower degree of reliance on other actors. From the European Commission’s viewpoint, it incorporates several initiatives including more forceful trade instruments coupled with expanding the autonomy of EU industry moving away from sourcing supplies from a single country, and bolstering economic resilience by diversifying, near-shoring, on-shoring, and shortening supply chains. It is worth pondering on the fact that this in-ward looking push is somewhat awkward in the EU context, considering it is the globe’s most incorporated trade community whilst being a long-time advocate of multilateralism and free trade. When analysing and contrasting economic growth, the picture emerging is one where the EU has been trailing the globe’s other main economic juggernauts, i.e., the US and China for some time, the EU’s share of the international economy might be diminishing, yet it still continues to be an essential international power coupled with robust trade ties with the rest of the globe. Nevertheless, if the EU’s quest for strategic autonomy translates into a quest for protectionism or even autarky, there is a risk that it might lose that status whilst becoming more vulnerable than previously. The current state of affairs accentuates the delicate balancing act the Union needs to walk, taking into account several continuously altering variables into the equation as it re-examines its economic strategy.  

The tale of two crises

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s response in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan focused on the means to enhance the Union’s response to potential future crises whilst additionally not being overly reliant on the US. Discussions amongst EU ministers for defence and foreign affairs centred on ways to increase the Union’s operational engagement coupled with the development of a rapid reaction response force with the capability of operating in challenging military environments. Charles Michel connected the withdrawal and the EU’s inability to evacuate personal without US support with a lack of European strategic autonomy, and he rhetorically asked, “How can we have more influence in the geopolitical sphere in the future than we do today?”. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has illuminated the inherent vulnerabilities associated with the Union’s international supply chains and dependencies in sectors of strategic importance. This situation was abundantly clear when in February 2020, many production sites in China where 80% of the raw materials used as active agents in some pharmaceuticals or parts for the automobile industry were produced were closed, translating into strained supply chains.  The pandemic viewed through the prism of the concept of strategic autonomy accentuates that it implies and incorporates more than solely the ability to take on more military responsibilities to protect the Union’s interests and citizens, a wider prism is needed to describe the whole picture of the EU’s vulnerabilities and inadequacies. 

The picture emerging regarding the development of strategic autonomy is a continuously expanding and more all-encompassing concept, having originated in the security and defence realm to include industrial and economic strategies presently additionally. Due to the concept’s ambiguous and extremely broad definition, it has the potential to mean “everything and nothing” at the same. Nevertheless, what is undebatable is that the genie is out of the bottle regarding how the concept has come to be used as the default analytical prism to evaluate the two above outlined crises whilst also being offered as a panacea. Whether or not the concept is a pipe dream or an attainable objective for the Union, the verdict is still out. It is clear that if the concept in its most all-encompassing interpretation comes to fruition, it will completely alter how the world views the EU. However, maybe more importantly, how the EU views itself with far-reaching ramifications for the world. 

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