EU struggles to give itself independence

By CHEN YINGQUN | China Daily
Updated: Nov 27, 2023

Bloc has a long way to go before it can achieve strategic autonomy: Experts

Many countries of the European Union are keen to seek what is being called strategic autonomy, but the EU still has a long way to go to achieve that goal, analysts say.

The term refers to the EU's ability to act autonomously — that is, without being dependent on other countries — in strategically important policy areas. The first official EU document containing the expression strategic autonomy appears to have been the European Council conclusions on the EU Common Security and Defense Policy of December 2013.

European Council President Charles Michel considered "strategic autonomy for Europe" as "the aim of our generation". Other leaders of European countries have also often called for EU policies to be forged independently and for European autonomy. Such advocates include France's President Emmanuel Macron, who has emphasized that the EU cannot be a vassal of the United States, particularly given that the EU and the US have different strategic interests.

In recent years the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have exposed Europe's vulnerabilities in areas such as defense, energy, supply chain and digitalization, making the development of comprehensive strategic autonomy more urgent, said Ding Chun, director of the Center for European Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai.

EU defense spending has continued to increase over the past six years, and last year the bloc said it planned to increase such spending by 70 billion euros ($76.5 billion) in three years, with many countries aiming to spend more on defense after the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out.

In terms of economics, the EU proposes to achieve autonomy while maintaining an open economy, focusing on strengthening the international role of the euro, the resilience of the financial system and industrial policy.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has led to an energy crisis in Europe, and the EU plans to focus on energy conservation, diversification of energy imports and accelerating the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources to seek energy autonomy.

Ding said that over the past 10 years, the concept of strategic autonomy has expanded from defense to economy and other areas, and the importance of seeking strategic autonomy has been widely acknowledged within the EU.

"From this perspective, there has been big progress in seeking strategic autonomy," he said. "It's not just a slogan but has been translated into action in certain areas."

Sven Biscop, director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, said that the debate about strategic autonomy has shifted from defense to economics in the EU. The EU "truly is an autonomous global player", and is notably developing its own economic strategy, he said. However, in defense far less progress has been made than many had hoped.

Biscop said that the EU is learning fast about what it means to be a geopolitical actor, for example supplying weapons to Ukraine in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

'Difficult on consensus'

"As ever, it is obvious that if Europeans want to have any impact on such crises, including in the Middle East, they can only do so collectively, through the EU," Biscop said. "Unfortunately, in many instances achieving consensus on strategy remains difficult."

Although there is a certain consensus about Europe's pursuit of strategic autonomy, member states have different considerations at the practical level, posing challenges in realizing true strategic autonomy, Ding said.

In different periods, especially when external factors change, there are different perceptions and reactions on the direction, degree and content of strategic autonomy within EU institutions and among European countries, he said.

For instance, France and Central and Eastern European countries have clear differences in security and defense. France has been more active in pushing for the EU's military autonomy and building the EU into a geopolitical power. However, for historical and practical reasons, Central and Eastern European countries, even Germany, prefer to rely on the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization to provide security, Ding said.

Over the past few years, the EU has advocated for open strategic autonomy in economics and trade, the core aim being not only to stay independent of other big economic entities but also to open up to the outside world.

However, recently some European politicians have politicized business issues with China and it has shown a trend of overemphasizing "de-risking" while dealing with China. However, many member countries view collaboration with China economically as beneficial to all sides.

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