The EU strategic autonomy debate
The concept of strategic autonomy is not new. In fact, if we look for earlier articulations of an ideal state as strong, confident, and self-sufficient, we can go back millennia.
Ancient Greek historian Thucydides, extolling the virtues of the city-state of Athens, wrote about successive generations of citizens who “strengthened the empire in most respects so that
it is sufficient for itself both in peace and in war.”6 This combination of power projection and self-reliance is at the core of the EU notion of strategic autonomy.
The assumption is that “Europe is an entity capable of taking its own decisions and determining the future.”7
This aspiration has driven the European integration project since its beginning. A series of milestone treaties made the Union more cohesive and powerful vis-à-vis other international players in economic,
political, security, and defense matters. The 1965 Merger Treaty created the single administrative and executive arms of the European Communities. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty made provisions
for shared European citizenship, set rules for the single currency, and launched the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The 2007 Lisbon Treaty added security and defense to the EU's competencies,
creating the possibility of a European defense union in the future. And it was the perceived need for a “European defense technological and industrial base” that can “enhance its strategic autonomy
and its ability to act with partners” that resulted in the first introduction of the expression “strategic autonomy” in an EU official document - The European Council's Conclusions on EU common security
and defense policy - adopted in December 2013.8
This aspiration has grown over the past decade, with the EU trying to assert itself in the changing and increasingly challenging geopolitical and geoeconomic environment.
Europeans had to face increasing instability on Europe's periphery (the outbreak of political, military, and humanitarian crises in the Sahel region, Libya, Syria, and Yemen,
and Russia's annexation of Crimea and small-scale armed conflict in eastern Ukraine). At the same time, the United States under the Obama administration was gradually pivoting
away from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. Trump's presidency and his crude attacks on the transatlantic alliance heightened both the fear of American disengagement
and desire to have more political space vis-à-vis the US.
By the end of the decade, Europeans felt that their efforts to foster a common security and defense policy were not keeping pace with realities on the ground, making them lose relevance.
In 2020, Josep Borrell lamented the ongoing “Astanization” of regional conflicts, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, and Syria, “which leads to the exclusion of Europe from the settlement
of regional conflicts in favor of Russia and Turkey.”9 The situation was particularly frustrating for champions of European strategic autonomy, most notably France under Emmanuel Macron,
which has pushed for more ambitious security and defense reforms.10 Some member-states, however, remained less enthusiastic about developing defense capabilities separate from NATO.
The anxiety peaked with the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2022. On the one hand, Russia's full-scale invasion constituted an unprecedented threat, forcing Europeans to become more serious about their defense
capabilities and pump-up military expenditures. On the other, the way the Western response unfolded removed any doubts about American leadership and the primacy of the transatlantic alliance in the provision
of European security. As noted in the EU Strategic Compass for Security and Defense adopted in March 2022, “a stronger and more capable EU in the field of security and defense will contribute positively
to global and transatlantic security and is complementary to NATO, which remains the foundation of collective defense for its members.”11 However, this relative clarity might be temporary.
Europeans are worriedly watching the American political scene, fearful of another “Trumpian” turn during the 2024 presidential elections. The next administration might prove to be less Europe-friendly and reliable.
European policymakers are also uncomfortable with Washington's increasingly confrontational approach toward Beijing.12 Tellingly, President Macron, during his return from China in April,
said that Europe must “avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the US over Taiwan,” and build its own strategic autonomy by reducing dependence on the United States.13
While his remarks were widely criticized for being “tone-deaf” and damaging for the EU-US alliance, they do reflect shared concerns on the continent.14 Thus, the EU partnership with the US, its prime ally,
is riddled with the fear of both abandonment and entrapment.
The EU's search for strategic autonomy has also expanded into economics, an area where the Union feels more confident, being the world's largest unified market and a global regulatory power.
However, a series of developments, such as the 2014 Russia-Ukraine-EU gas crisis, the unfolding of China's global Belt and Road Initiative and the inroads that Beijing has made into Europe since 2013,
and supply chain disruptions during the Covid-2019 pandemic, have set nerves jangling in Brussels. The economy is also where the drive for autonomy clashes with the commitment to open competition and global trade.
The war in Ukraine ended the two-decade-old debate on whether massive oil and gas imports from Russia foster healthy interdependence or unhealthy dependence. Instances of Putin's Russia using energy
for political ends, including cutting off gas to Ukraine in 2006, 2009, and 2014, alarmed Europeans. However, despite waves of efforts to diversify supplies, the partnership with Russian Gazprom continued
and even flourished with the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Only with the outbreak of war in 2022 did Germany freeze the project and the EU push for decoupling from Russian oil
and gas - a painful and costly process, long resisted but now deemed necessary.
While the decision on Russia has been made, the approach to China is under construction. Europeans value access to the country's vast market and its investments. However, they have been increasingly unhappy
with what they see as unfair competition from Chinese companies benefiting from government subsidies and rents enjoying the openness of European markets, while China's market remains protected.
There are concerns the transfer of dual-use technologies to China feeds its military might and fears of Beijing's weaponization of European dependencies. For example, the EU countries are almost fully dependent
on China for critical raw materials indispensable for such highly strategic sectors as the green energy, the digital economy, aerospace, and defense.
Europeans have also been upset with Beijing's policies on the continent, cultivating relations with certain countries at the expense of European unity. In 2012 China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries
formed the 16+1 platform to promote economic cooperation. Under this umbrella, China has invested billions in various sectors, including energy, transport, information and communication technology (ICT), manufacturing,
and real estate. Most investments were made in non-EU member states. Brussels saw this platform as an attempt to divide Europe and create dependencies. In 2016, the European Commission adopted
the Joint Communication on Elements for a new EU Strategy on China, which insisted that “the EU must project a strong, clear and unified voice in its approach to China,” and any bilateral relations with China,
including in-group settings such as the 16+1 forum, should be coordinated with the European Commission, the European External Action Service and other member states.15
The EU also worries about China's global expansion and efforts to revise norms and standards. The Belt and Road Initiative, launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, is China's vehicle to position itself
at the center of the global economic system. In response, the European Commission announced the Europe-Asia Connectivity Strategy in 2018 and the Global Gateway initiative in 2021. These efforts reflect
the acceptance of the challenge posed by China and a readiness to invest in infrastructure around the world, using and spreading European standards and norms. The focus is on building physical infrastructure,
such as fiber optic cables, clean transport corridors, and clean power transmission lines, and on “enabling environment to make sure projects deliver, by offering attractive investment and business-friendly
trading conditions, regulatory convergence, standardization, supply chain integration, and financial services.”16
There is little doubt that the EU has the capacity to protect its economic interests and project power. The debate focuses on better ways of reaching these goals and finding a proper balance of openness
and protective measures, efficiency, and security. The term “open strategic autonomy” captures the ideal but does not provide clear guidelines on how to strike a balance. One emerging approach is to build EU resilience
by strengthening links with like-minded partners, the so-called “friend-shoring”; another is fostering cooperation with neighboring countries - “near-shoring.”
While the EU and the United States see each other as like-minded partners, there are differences and tensions as well. The most significant divergence is emerging in their attitudes and policies toward China.
While in the US, there is a strong push for decoupling from China, Europeans do not see this as a viable and desirable option. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, on the eve of her April trip to Beijing,
gave a speech outlining the approach: not decoupling but “de-risking.” One pillar of the economic de-risking strategy is making the European economy and industry more competitive and resilient, particularly
in the health, digital, and clean-tech sectors. The aim is to remain frontrunners and be able to produce at least 40 percent of the clean tech needed for the green transition, which would require major
efforts to diversify Europe's rare earths supply, since 98 percent currently comes from China.17 This creates opportunities for other countries with rare earths deposits.
Two other pillars are regulatory in nature: to better use existing trade instruments to counter economic distortions, deter economic coercion and prevent leakage of emerging and sensitive technologies,
and to develop new tools for critical sectors like microelectronics, quantum computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and biotech. The fourth pillar is to align with partners on making and modernizing
free trade agreements, and through the Global Gate initiative to invest in clean tech and digital infrastructure in different parts of the world to strengthen Europe's supply chain resilience.