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Facing the risks: making strategic autonomy work in practice

Vassilis Ntousas
FEPS International Relations Senior Policy Advisor

Over time, the concept of European strategic autonomy has come to encapsulate the EU’s desire to chart its own (foreign) policy course according to its own laws, interests, and values. At risk of being sucked into the emerging whirlpool of intensifying global competition, if not unbridled US-China rivalry, the case for such an objective seems to be getting stronger by the minute. And yet, for a term that is deemed so vital for the EU’s future, the pursuit of strategic autonomy remains ridden with risks and fraught with complexity.

Four key such risks illustrate why the EU needs to more valiantly confront the tricky dilemmas and trade-offs involved in its quest to autonomy, sooner rather than later.

First, there is the profound danger of conflating strategic autonomy with full autarky, as certain voices do, even as a long-term aspirational goal for the Union. The EU can and should act alone in select instances where it deems it necessary, but treating autonomy as synonymous to constant and absolute self-sufficiency is simply unrealistic, if not delusional. From Afghanistan and the Indo-pacific all the way to its own Eastern and Southern neighbourhood, almost every crisis confronting the EU confirms the fallacy of viewing autonomy as a binary (either you have it or you don’t). The bloc simply does not have the capacity to act without resorting to reliance on other international actors, and is not expected to acquire such capacity in the foreseeable future. And even in areas where the EU does yield considerable regulatory power that transcends its borders, this is simply no match for the emerging geopolitical context. As FT’s Allan Beattie brilliantly tweeted recently: “What’s Brussels going to do, take on China by dispatching GDPR or the Reach chemicals regulatory handbook to the South China Sea?” Strategic autonomy should be instead treated as managing a spectrum of interdependencies in the EU’s favour, while avoiding the two extremes of full dependence and absolute self-sufficiency.

Tightly linked to this, the Union also needs to be cautious not to allow the pursuit of autonomy conceal a drift towards a regressive direction, characterised by protectionism and extreme self-reliance. Take trade and the economy as an example: following the pandemic that shed an unforgiving light on the negative aspects of our global interdependence, it became clear there is a very fine line between growing the capabilities and tools to better shield European states, economies and citizens from future crises and enforcing protectionist policy measures or completely decoupling supply chains. Yet, as a Union whose prosperity is very much dependent on trade and economic openness, it is easy to see why opting for the latter, however intuitive it might seem, will be detrimental for the bloc’s competitiveness and resilience. The same holds for the digital sphere: if it takes autonomy too far, the EU risks fuelling the dystopian vision of the ‘splinternet’, which is predominantly backed by authoritarian states, and whereby each person’s web experience is profoundly altered by their country of access. Therefore, sustained caution is warranted to avoid what Richard Youngs has observed “as a decade-long trend in EU external action toward what can be termed protective security: a shift away from the union’s erstwhile transformative power toward defensive self-protection”. The addition of adjectives such as ‘open’ before the words ‘strategic autonomy’, as the Commission has variously done, might signify intent in this direction, but clearly much more work is needed at a practical level to avoid the sirens of protectionism (and self-containment). 

Third, there is the simple but very real risk of unrealistically inflating expectations linked to what embracing and enhancing the EU’s strategic autonomy can do. From the domain of security and defence, to the economic and digital spheres, the concept’s meteoric rise in the EU’s vocabulary put it at the risk of meaning anything to anyone and serving as an empty buzzword that is simply used to mask cleavages or inefficiencies. It really shouldn’t. There is unprecedented necessity and urgency in pursuing the strategic objectives undergirding autonomy, and specificity about what these can, achieve, at what pace and under which circumstances, is key. The term can neither be seen as a panacea for all ills plaguing the Union’s external action, nor saddled with all relevant criticisms in the frequent occasions of underdelivery. Instead, measurable, attainable goals should accompany its operationalisation in each relevant sector, to avoid having an ill-defined concept that makes the Union more ill-equipped to face a fast-changing world than it currently is.

Finally, the EU needs to avoid treating strategic autonomy as an end in itself. If this is the case, the term might become more a hindrance than a help to otherwise sensible goals and actions. The recent example of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is illustrative in this regard. In December 2020, Berlin and Paris applied intense pressure to pass the agreement under the German presidency, without waiting for the Biden administration to take office and engage in – at least some – consultations with it. While this was portrayed as a ‘victory’ for strategic autonomy, it is at least questionable whether it helped the EU in the slightest, both in terms of advancing more transatlantic coordination and a more nuanced Sino-European policy engagement; the legislative process for ratifying the investment deal is now completely frozen, following Beijing’s decision to impose sanctions against several EU lawmakers. This is why autonomy should not be understood as the end-in-itself, often masking differentiation for its own sake. Being an enabling framework for serving the Union’s long-term interests and values should instead be the main objective.

In all fairness, Brussels and many national capitals seem cognisant of these risks. But the multitude of levels, sectors, and actors involved in gradually operationalising the term and making true of its promise carries with it the real potential of turning what is a sensible proposition for a Union that expects to struggle with the new context of brutal geopolitical competition into a misguided one. As autonomy transitions from a catch-all buzzword to a set of tangible strategic objectives, the EU needs to confront the many messy dangers and challenges that are inherent in this process. Strategic autonomy can point to a direction of great value and significance for the Union. Avoiding these risks and working to address their underlying dilemmas can make sure it is the right one.

Photo credits: Shutterstock


Related articles:
The US cannot escape the European strategic autonomy debate, by Martin Quencez
European strategic autonomy and human rights, by Daniela Schwarz

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