Written by Ronja Ganster
Strategic autonomy remains one of the most contentious concepts in EU foreign and security policy. The COVID-19 pandemic bolstered the concept’s economic and technological dimensions and broadened its geographical implications beyond the United States and towards China. This updated definition rightly reflects a world in which security extends far beyond the traditional military sphere and includes global supply chains and digital networks. While the EU quickly took the first steps to address these issues, the original heart of the issue —the military dimension— remains overshadowed by disagreements over definitions. But as the pandemic underlined the urgency to address the military dimension, 2022 could be the year to bring real progress to this long-standing debate.
20 Years of Debate – The Origins of Strategic Autonomy
For more than 20 years, EU countries, politicians, and scholars have debated the need to expand the European Union’s capacity to act autonomously, known as strategic autonomy. The deterioration of the transatlantic partnership under the Trump administration brought new momentum into the debate, prompting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to state that “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands” (Paravicini, 2017). Yet, concrete policy initiatives remained vague, as debates about the definition of strategic autonomy prevented policy progress (Major & Mölling, 2020). The outbreak of the pandemic has contributed to the lack of progress, drawing political attention towards health and economic issues and side-lining Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s project of a “geopolitical Europe” (Alcaro & Tocci, 2021, p. 6).
As the questions surrounding strategic autonomy continue, it is easy to overlook that the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded its meaning and broadened its regional focus. But as EU leaders quickly reacted to the evolving political landscape, the original crux of the matter continues to cause disagreements. The idea of strategic autonomy, which originated in the security field in the late 1990s, aimed to strengthen the EU’s military capacity, thereby decreasing the dependence on its security partners, particularly the U.S. This promptly raised concerns in Washington and several European capitals that the concept’s implicit goal was to decouple European countries from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) (Fiott, 2018). In 2016, the EU Global Strategy continued to situate strategic autonomy in a defence context and declared it “important for Europe’s ability to promote peace and security within and beyond its borders” (European Union, 2016). French President Emmanuel Macron, a staunch supporter of the concept, similarly demanded to strengthen “Europe’s autonomous operating capabilities, in complement to NATO” (Macron, 2017). While scholars acknowledged that the operational dimension of strategic autonomy had to go hand in hand with other aspects like political and industrial autonomy, they were largely absent from the political discourse and European foreign policy (Kempin & Kunz, 2017).
How the Pandemic Changed the Concept
As countries suffered from the downsides of global interdependence in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, strategic autonomy was revived and extended to economic and technological dimensions. In September 2020, EU Council president Charles Michel framed the EU’s economic recovery package as a key step to achieve strategic autonomy, which he called the “goal number one for our generation” (Michel, 2020). The same month, the EU Commission created an initiative to “reach ‘strategic autonomy’ on critical raw materials” and decrease its dependency on foreign countries for resources that it considers crucial to its green and digital transition (Simon, 2020).
The pandemic amplified the role of technology in all areas of life, and “digital sovereignty” became a new buzzword in EU political circles. The digital world is now deemed an integral part of strategic autonomy and recognized as a field in which the EU can drive global standards through its regulatory heft in what has been dubbed as the “Brussels Effect” (Beattie, 2020). Since 2020, the EU has sought to take advantage of its power to influence global norms to advance digital sovereignty through a new data strategy, while also increasing efforts towards a European cloud and a better prevention against cyber-attacks (Madiega, 2020).
While the pandemic itself is not solely responsible for the changing political context in which strategic autonomy is being discussed, it significantly accelerated global developments that play into the same debate. Among the most important factors that are currently shaping the discussion over Europe’s ability to act autonomously are China’s rise and the revival of great power competition. Hoping to make the EU less dependent on the United States and in turn more likely to cooperate more closely with China, Beijing has publicly supported EU strategic autonomy (Stec, 2021). However, several signs suggest that Chinese hopes for a growing wedge between the EU and the United States could remain unfulfilled. Last December, German Defence Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer reiterated that the U.S. remains Europe’s most important ally and signaled Germany’s hopes to strengthen the European pillar within NATO (Kramp-Karrenbauer, 2021). More recently, U.S. President Biden’s attempts to court EU countries into stronger security cooperation and calls to build a joint stance towards China showed promising results (Lau, 2021; Barigazzi, 2021).
These diplomatic moves do not mean that the project of strategic autonomy is being abandoned, nor that the disagreements associated with the term have been resolved. Instead, the EU is trying more than ever to shape a vision in which strong transatlantic relations and strategic autonomy are not mutually exclusive (Borrell, 2020). In that regard, the pandemic might have actually helped reduce the negative fixation on the United States by demonstrating that the EU is not as dependent on Washington as it was thought. In the digital and economic spheres, EU dependence on China was painfully obvious and showed that strategic autonomy is equally relevant to EU-China relations.
All hopes for 2022?
Past discussions about strategic autonomy have shown that policy debates alone have little effect on political reality. Moreover, the EU is notoriously slow in implementing foreign policy initiatives, as the bloc’s foreign and security policy requires unanimity among all 27 members. Where does this leave strategic autonomy?
There is no doubt that strategic autonomy has become a priority on the EU agenda, with Brussels now seeing it as a comprehensive concept that goes beyond traditional security. In a globalized world, the capacity to act autonomously depends as much on maintaining a resilient economy and independent technology sector as it does on traditional defence. Moreover, in these areas, it might actually be easier to reach consensus and concrete policy progress, as shown in the clear embedment of strategic autonomy in the EU’s recovery package, the €95.5 billion scientific research initiative Horizon Europe, and Europe’s new industrial policy (European Commission, 2020; European Commission, 2021a; European Commission 2021b).
Despite the consensus to work towards strategic autonomy in the economic and digital realms, it had little spill-over effect on the military sphere. Pre-pandemic quarrels over how best to strengthen the EU’s ability to protect itself have continued, as demonstrated by the public sparring between Berlin and Paris over the future role of transatlantic relations (Franke, 2021). But while the pandemic has not contributed to finding a common vision of Europe’s defence, the geopolitical developments it accelerated nonetheless created a renewed sense of urgency. Both Germany and France agree that “Europe must do more” for its own security, and as the pandemic’s grip on Europe is loosening, the issue is likely to return to the top of the EU agenda (Franke, 2021). One opportunity to do so will be the publication of the EU Strategic Compass scheduled for March 2022, which is expected to overcome the vagueness of the 2016 EU Global Strategy and concretize the EU’s defence objectives and necessary capabilities (EEAS, 2021).
Two events scheduled to take place in EU countries within the next year raise the chances of real progress. This September, Germany is set to elect a new chancellor, and the two top candidates, Armin Laschet from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Anna-Lena Baerbock from the Green Party, are passionately pro-EU. But while their lack of federal government experience is often portrayed as a disadvantage, the desire to strengthen their foreign policy profile could make them more open to overcome past German objections and broker a European compromise on the issue. In France, Macron faces tough competition in his bid for re-election in May 2022, and there is a fair chance that he will turn to the EU —and strategic autonomy— to boost his popularity. Conveniently, France will also hold the presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2022, giving Macron centre stage on EU matters. Paired with a new German chancellor and the EU Strategic Compass, the military dimension of EU strategic autonomy could finally receive a much-needed push.
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