Achieving European strategic autonomy: a complex but necessary challenge

, by Grégory Pillot

Achieving European strategic autonomy: a complex but necessary challenge
The European Parliament. Credit: European Union 2018 - European Parliament

Russia is invading Ukraine, Afghanistan is under Taliban’s control, China’s economic imperialism is growing, and the old American ally seems less and less trustworthy. As more years go by, the more Francis Fukuyama’s prediction about the occurrence of a democratic and peaceful world slowly fades away. Having based its foreign policy on this assumption after communism’s fall through demilitarisation and the promotion of free trade, Europe is not prepared for an era of new international competition. As the instability of the geopolitical order grows, so does Europe’s dependence on the rest of the world, putting the old continent in a very dangerous position. This leaves Europeans no choice but to rethink their autonomy if they still want to play a geopolitical role in the future.

The concept of “European strategic autonomy”, or European sovereignty, refers to the ability of the European Union to act in an autonomous way, without being dependent on other countries in strategically important areas. Its main objective is to allow Europe to defend its own interests and to uphold its democratic values. Developed during the 1998 Franco-British summit of Saint Malo, the idea of European independence has evolved alongside the main world crisis. The term of strategic autonomy appeared for the first time in the European Union common security and defence policy of 2013. The main idea at the time was to increase European autonomy in security domains and tasks in which NATO or neutral stance were not sufficient. Although the 2016 EU global strategy recalled the importance of this concept, most member states did not want a separate military organisation distinct from NATO. The Trump presidency certainly put into perspective the American alliance, but not enough to realise France’s dream of an autonomous European defence. It is really Covid-19 and the Russo-Ukrainian war which brutally highlighted how fragile Europe actually was when it came to supply chains and economic independence. Both crises gave legitimacy to the European strategic autonomy debate and made Europeans realise the need for a ‘united, resilient and sovereign Europe’ [1].

Aiming towards more autonomy is essential, for Europe has still today many flaws concerning its economic and technological sovereignty. The balance of trade of the European Union during the January-August 2022 period was at a deficit of €228,8 billion [2]. But what is more worrying, however, is that while the European Union has a positive trade balance with the United States or the United Kingdom, its negative trade balance mainly comes from China and Russia (with a negative trade balance of respectively €259 and 115 billion). Another good example of this dependence is the fact that Taiwan is controlling 53% of the production of microprocessors in the world, and China 17% [3]. If China was to attack the small island and destroy its industry, the European economy would probably collapse within days. Concerning technological sovereignty, the situation is not better: 91,54% [4] European smartphone market share is controlled by either American, Korean or Chinese companies. Furthermore, most of the old continent’s armament industry is still heavily dependent on Washington.

All those dependencies diminish European capability to act freely in the world. The debate about which sanctions Europe should take on Russia amazingly demonstrated how Europe had to choose between its economy and the defence of Ukraine, and how complicated this choice was. The gap in the new technology sector is also frightening; it won’t matter which rules Europe wants to implement to frame them if they are all built in the United States and China. The armament industry problem means that Europe often has no real choice but to follow Washington foreign policy on some matters, like a hard line approach towards China.

Many challenges exist when it comes to European strategic autonomy. The creation of a European defence organisation will probably not happen, for a majority of the member states are aligned with Washington. But the economic and technological sovereignty, on the other hand, seems politically achievable. The European Union is a formidable economic, normative, trading, spatial and aeronautic power. The EU-27 GDP accounted for 17,77% [5] of the world GDP in 2021, while only representing approximately 6% of its total population. The budgetary power of the Union is huge (170 billion euro in 2022 [6]) and allows the commission to do investments in many sectors to increase Europe’s strategic autonomy. The legislative power allows Brussels to create a legal framework which influences even the most powerful countries in the world, especially in environmental law.

Much has been done over the past few years. In March 2022, the Versailles declaration and the EU strategic compass both showed the resolve of the member states to reach strategic autonomy by recalling the importance of technological, economic and military sovereignty. Measures have been taken to decrease the dependence from Russian gas. Concerning Covid-19, the increased power of the Commission concerning health has allowed for better cooperation between the member states. A relevant part of the multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027, adopted by the European Parliament, is dedicated to strategic autonomy. The action of the European Investment Bank directs a part of the public and private investment towards projects which encompass sovereignty and environmental objectives.

But much more can, and most importantly, must be done. Europe must first identify its main dependencies and decide which one can be avoided through investments in the most strategic sectors of the European Union, such as industry. Reindustrializing Europe is essential to ending dependence on manufactured products. Concerning sectors in which Europe cannot be self-sufficient, it has to carefully choose its economic partners. This choice has to be based on their political system and stability, to ensure the safety of the supply value chains. This issue mainly concerns raw materials, such as oil or gas, that are impossible to find in Europe. Nonetheless, developing green technology can allow Europeans to not be dependent on other countries and to be a leader in the environmental transition. The green new deal, which led to many investments framed by ecological norms, is the perfect example of how the European Union can use both its budget and legislative power to facilitate the green transition.

Furthermore, being a leader of this transition will put other countries in a situation of dependence vis a vis Europe. Strategic autonomy is admittedly a way for Europe to be economically independent but can also be used to ensure that other countries will follow European norms and values of fair trade in their approach to globalisation. In this sense, a reform of the competition policy could have the positive effect of creating European technologic and economic giants, such as the Chinese BATX or American GAFAM. In doing so, Europe could therefore influence globalisation.

By being economically independent, Europe would therefore allow its member states to have a more flexible foreign policy, and to not have to choose between their values and economic imperatives. But most importantly, Europe could influence globalisation, and therefore through European strategic autonomy actually promote free and fair trade and assert the importance of multilateralism in those troubled times.

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