Among the policy ideas that circulate in the EU, and in the Brussels ‘bubble’ the concept of the EU’s ‘Strategic autonomy’ has recently been receiving publicity. It was voiced in a 2016 EU paper on the EU's global strategy and has been promoted by Macron’s government. One version was on display in Macron’s recent visit to China. This blog looks at the different meanings that can be given to it.
The easiest way of understanding ‘Strategic autonomy’ is that it stands for the EU playing a geopolitical role at a measured distance from the increasingly fraught relationship between an authoritarian China and the US in its role as leader of the democratic world. It speaks to the possibility that the EU does not have to take sides in any new Cold War confrontation but can look for areas where cooperation with authoritarian countries, and in particular China, is still possible and desirable. Possibly, with a more nuanced posture the EU can help head-off any new Cold War.
The EU would expect to benefit from this more nuanced posture towards China. The benefits might arise from closer trade, or investment links, or from cooperation in other policy areas important to the EU such as the environment.
This manifestation of Strategic Autonomy has roots in the old Cold War when France, and President de Gaulle in particular, aimed to play the same free-lance, opportunistic and semi-independent role between the US and the Soviet Union. De Gaulle was an irritant but did not fundamentally alter the dynamics of the old Cold War. He failed to undermine either American fortitude in standing up to the Soviet Union or to weaken NATO. It would however be a mistake to assume that in any new great power struggle the concept and practice of strategic autonomy will only be an ‘irritant’. It speaks to the desire for the EU to play a distinctive role in world affairs, a role defined by itself and not by others. This underlying motivation is not limited to status-hungry French politicians and is not likely to go away.
Defence and Security
Included in the idea of strategic autonomy, alongside the idea that the EU can play a possible role in averting a new Cold War confrontation, is an accompanying desire that the EU play a larger role in developing its own security and defence capacity. Its ‘soft power’ as a trading bloc is well recognised. A greater capacity to project hard power across international boundaries seems a natural accompaniment to soft power. It would help give credibility to the development of a distinctive geopolitical role.
Currently EU ambitions to increase its security and defence capabilities are reflected in the recently agreed ‘Strategic Compass’ that is intended to set the direction of policy through 2030. The Strategic Compass sets out a number of areas where the EU can do more in building up its capacity to act, including simply spending more on defence. But it also emphasises the importance of partnerships with the US and other countries outside the EU such as the UK. This reflects the lessons from Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. The invasion has underlined the continuing importance of NATO and that there is no substitute for American leadership in standing up to authoritarian regimes. Partnership provides an alternative vision to strategic autonomy but does not eliminate its appeal.
The concept of strategic autonomy can also be applied to EU trade policy. In this context the concept stands for the idea of managed trade objectives. The aim would be to reduce dependence on imports of commodities or products of strategic importance. At the same time it would be consistent with support for domestic high tech industries judged to be of strategic importance such as AI. Energy is also a crucial focus. EU dependence on imports from Russia has been exposed as a strategic vulnerability and is to be replaced by the planned switch to renewables. There is concern about analogous dependencies in relation to China. However, one obstacle is that the EU is currently dependent on China for solar panels and rare minerals and so dependency in the energy sector will persist for some time despite the cutback of ties to Russia.
There is nothing new in thinking about strategically managed trade objectives. It goes back to what Adam Smith called a mercantilist view of trading relationships rather than one based on comparative advantage. Tensions between China and the democratic world give a new impulse to managed trade relations and not just in France and the EU but also in the US..
Finally, the concept of strategic autonomy appeals to the idea that the EU has its own distinctive identity that needs to be both protected and projected. Just what this distinctive identity consists of is rarely specified. But it includes the idea that values in the EU are supportive of kinder, gentler societies, giving attention to a broad range of welfare goals. At the same time the EU would like to be known for its attention to environmental objectives and the commitment to net zero carbon targets. Human rights also have a large place in internal and external policy.
Another side of the idea of the EU’s distinctive identity is the aspiration that somehow the EU can counter the appeal of the anglo-saxon world where English is the language of international media, the internet, and pop culture. One difficulty is that English is also the language of the international knowledge world in science and in academia. This can be interpreted as arguing in favour of a much greater EU focus on science. But the international nature of intellectual endeavour might also suggest that in this area strategic autonomy is a false goal despite its appeal in relation to other aspects of identity.
Alternatives; a renewed transatlantic partnership
The main alternative to the concept of EU strategic autonomy is provided by the idea of a renewed transatlantic partnership and alliances with other like-minded countries. This alternative has received a strong impetus following the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. The EU/ US regulatory dialogue designed to reduce transatlantic regulatory frictions and to increase cooperation, including in respect of financial service regulation, has also received a new impetus.
It would be tempting to conclude that it is mainly Macron who still peddles the idea of strategic autonomy. However, the ambition for the EU to be able to act on its own, independently of partners, and projecting its own identity, will no doubt resurface, as and when Ukraine and Russia reach some kind of peace settlement, and armed conflict in Europe ceases. For the present, the concept is down but not out. If Trump were to be elected President in 2024, strategic autonomy might become the only game in town.