For the EU, there is a new elephant in the room: it is the very much debated concept of Strategic Autonomy. But how should the bloc deal with it?
“Strategic Autonomy” has become a very popular term in the EU decision making rooms and in the academic world. It refers to the idea that the EU should engage to become independent in certain areas. The benefits of such a condition are quite evident: to be autonomous means to be less reliant on third countries for the production of certain goods, and the provision of specific services. Strategic autonomy would also foster the image of the bloc in the international chessboard. Even though the discussions over strategic autonomy have been on the table for a long time now, particularly supported by French President Emmanuel Macron who is a convinced enthusiast of this concept, there are several issues that we need to take into account when dealing with it.
Strategic in what?
The objective of becoming more independent has already been underlined in the EU Strategic Agenda 2019-2024. It is not a surprise that the discourse on strategic autonomy has been accelerated only following the spread of Covid-19, in which the necessity to be autonomous in certain areas became evident. The initial lack of adequate medical equipment such as masks and sanitisers in many European member states has fostered the awareness of the importance of being provided with immediate goods in emergency situations. This is why we can think of applying strategic autonomy in the field of medical products and medicines.
But the discourse on strategic autonomy goes beyond the pandemic. Another area in which the EU is reflecting on improving its independence is the one of defence. Here, discussions on the creation of a real European army have been ongoing for years. The main fear in the realization of strategic autonomy in defence is given by the risk of hampering the EU partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States, which may look such a decision with raised eyebrows. Nonetheless, a stronger defence role of the EU in the field of defence is precisely what could boost the role of the bloc in NATO, and at the same time, respond to the request of the US to the European bloc to take its share of burden when it comes to defence.
In third place, we can talk about strategic industrial autonomy of the European Union. This would imply a rethinking and reorganization of a green and digital industrial production of the EU. The Recovery Plan that the EU is drafting as a response to the economic crisis left by Covid-19, when the bloc will have to demonstrate a strong resilience and capacity to recover from an heavy external shock, could represent a good opportunity to apply a new, modern, and environmental-friendly industrial strategy.
Put in this way, strategic autonomy looks extremely appealing, as the new way to relaunch the role of the European Union in the world. On the other side, the path for the achievement of this autonomy is far from easy.
The complex structure of the EU and the different interests of its member states make it hard for the bloc to proceed compactly in many issues, especially if delicate such as industrial production and defence. What could be beneficial to Italy, may appear as dangerous for the economy of Poland or Denmark. In addition to that, the division of competencies among EU institutions and national governments, which differentiate between exclusive, shared and supporting competencies, renders even more difficult to find immediate responses to the needs required by a united strategic autonomy, which would require the pooling of these competencies.
Strategic and globalized
In addition to these internal issues, we should not forget the nature of the world in which we live. Globalization has facilitated international interaction and cooperation, rendering states more and more dependent on one another. The EU cannot simply think of overcoming this “global condition” by deciding from one day to another to assume complete independence on a certain particular area. This will project an image of the bloc which is opposed and discordant to its own nature, and against its approach in external affairs: that is, one based on international and multilateral cooperation and dialogue, in the respect of the values that support the Union, as dictated in Article 21 of the Treaty on the EU.
Furthermore, the world has to be ready to understand what “strategic” stands for. More autonomy and independence do not go against the principle of cooperation which guides the external action of the European Union. This must be clear especially in the vision of strategic autonomy in defence, which does not imply a cut of relations with Washington.
Towards a Strategic future?
In conclusion, strategic autonomy would represent a significant change of path in the action of the European Union in the global arena. This could appear as both an advantage and a disadvantage, according to the way the bloc manages to deal with it and remain a credible actor and a reliable partner. However, as Paola Tamma reports in an article in Politico.eu, if the EU wants to obtain its strategic autonomy, it first of all has to understand what this actually means, and how it intends to achieve it.