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Making European strategic autonomy work

Posted By , and on November 27, 2023 @ 12:00

Faced with many differences between its member states, the European Union has sought to refine its concept of strategic autonomy over the past few years. Now, Spain intends to use its EU Council presidency to bring greater coherence and substance to this debate. If it succeeds, Europe will have taken a significant step toward deeper integration.

The concept of strategic autonomy has already evolved considerably. Originating in the defence sphere, it first appeared in an official EU document [1] in 2013. It then became a foreign-policy principle in the EU’s 2016 global strategy [2], before finally extending to the economic realm with the bloc’s new commitment to ‘open strategic autonomy [3]’ in 2020.

The basic idea is that Europeans must be able to live by their own laws and defend their interests without foreign interference (or assistance). Yet given the EU’s cooperative nature, consensus-based decision-making and deep economic ties to the rest of the world, external action must strike a delicate balance. It must be multilateral when possible, but unilateral when necessary.

Between the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the intensifying Sino-American rivalry and the return of industrial policy, the EU has ample reason to re-examine its relationship with the rest of the world and to embed open strategic autonomy within a new economic-security paradigm. Europeans have awoken to the fact that interdependence is a source not only of security and prosperity, but also of potential vulnerability.

To chart a course forward, the Spanish EU Council presidency has produced Resilient EU2030: a future-oriented approach to reinforce the EU’s open strategic autonomy and global leadership [4], a roadmap that makes five positive contributions to this debate.

First, the process that produced the roadmap is to be commended, since it relied on the perspectives of all 27 member states (plus the European Commission), even on controversial matters such as the principle that EU industrial policy should follow a predominantly European logic.

Second, Resilient EU2030 offers a welcome dose of both realism and optimism. It contains not just a candid assessment of the EU’s vulnerabilities, but also constructive proposals to overcome them.

Third, the roadmap rightly emphasises the importance of openness and international cooperation. The EU must remain firm in its determination not to close itself off from the world. Decoupling from China, especially, is infeasible and would prove very costly if tried.

Fourth, the document boasts a great deal of substance, with detailed chapters on how to implement specific, original policy recommendations in the fields of health, food, digital technology and energy. It also offers good arguments for how the EU can become greener and more competitive while remaining open.

Finally, Resilient EU2030 wisely acknowledges that the international order needs to be reformed, not merely protected or preserved, and that Europe can play a leading role in that process, while also including the global south.

Like any ambitious strategy document, however, this one has some shortcomings. For starters, any effort to map out future scenarios must assign a defining role to volatility, uncertainty and risk. Today’s world is marked by increased political polarisation and fragmentation, both internationally and domestically. Policy responses therefore should focus on adaptability and contingencies, and they must include ‘offensive’ economic-security tools (such as sanctions) in addition to defensive ones.

Second, though Resilient EU2030 includes a detailed look at goods dependencies (referencing 323 specific products), it pays far less attention to services. Yet it is services (and platforms) that will shape the evolution of the global economy. That means the EU’s single market in services will be a crucial factor in its own future competitiveness. If recent experience has taught us anything, it is that comprehensive economic relationships comprising goods, services and investments can be weaponised as easily as those that are defined more narrowly.

Third, the text places too much faith in the EU’s alliances with like-minded countries. Individual member-state preferences are always subject to political change, and many potential partners—such as Brazil and India—are already not aligned with the EU on vitally important issues such as the war in Ukraine. Instead of focusing on apparent like-mindedness, the EU should pursue different kinds of relationships in the interest of diversification.

Fourth, although the synergies and trade-offs associated with strategic autonomy are briefly mentioned, they warrant closer consideration. The EU must ensure that there’s adequate buy-in from citizens for the inevitably painful changes that are needed.

Lastly, the EU should consider how it can more proactively pursue economic security through strengthened economic performance. That means exploring how common resources might be used to support investments in major transitions—from decarbonisation to digitalisation—and in managing demographic changes and new security threats.

Overall, Resilient EU2030 provides a nuanced and balanced vision of how to strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy. It avoids the pitfall of viewing the EU’s reindustrialisation as a silver bullet, and it presents more targeted measures than previous EU strategy papers have done. It acknowledges that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution—since different vulnerabilities require different responses—and it correctly emphasises the role of circularity in increasing the EU’s resilience. EU policymakers now have a suite of bold and interesting proposals for encouraging citizens and firms to be more responsible in resource usage.

The Spanish EU Council presidency has put meat on the bones of open strategic autonomy and offered a blueprint for translating the concept into concrete policies. With Resilient EU2030, policymakers and publics alike have a chance to engage with this crucial issue in the run-up to next year’s European Parliament elections.

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URLs in this post:

[1] official EU document: https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-217-2013-INIT/en/pdf

[2] global strategy: https://www.coe-civ.eu/kh/a-global-strategy-for-the-european-unions-foreign-and-security-policy

[3] open strategic autonomy: https://spanish-presidency.consilium.europa.eu/en/programme/open-strategic-autonomy-spanish-presidency-eu-council-resilient-eu2030/

[4] Resilient EU2030: a future-oriented approach to reinforce the EU’s open strategic autonomy and global leadership: https://spanish-presidency.consilium.europa.eu/en/news/the-spanish-presidency-presents-resilient-eu2030-roadmap-to-boost-european-union-open-strategic-autonomy/

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