In a roundtable discussion in Paris, France prominent political experts, policymakers, diplomats, and journalists discussed at length the prospects of European strategic autonomy and the ambition to build a geopolitical Europe.
Given the profound changes in the geopolitical landscape and the fragmentation of the multilateral order the European Union (EU) is forced to pursue a more independent and assertive international role, while strengthening relations with strategic partners. Do all the member states, however, agree on the same geopolitical objectives? What could be some new tools helping the Union to build a geopolitical Europe? How can the European strategic autonomy initiative be realized?
There is an increasing need for the EU to develop the ability to make efficient decisions, and the ability to take these decisions for themselves. Simply, the EU should develop the capacity to act autonomously. While the idea of strategic autonomy is not new, in many national capitals there is a feeling of incoherency and disunity in relation to the concept. When assessing strategic autonomy, member states (MS) need to opt for a pragmatic approach to identifying vulnerabilities and dependencies in order to eliminate them. The upcoming strategic compass could have the potential to be a driving tool for a new era of European strategic culture and decision-making to begin.
Towards a European Strategic Autonomy: Strengthening Capacities Where It Matters
When assessing Europe´s dependencies, we need to address a paramount question: are there any areas where our dependencies do not matter? Naturally, the EU member states tend to address as a challenge their dependencies only with regards to non-allies. Often there is a disagreement on what is reliance and what is dependent on allies (e.g. US). Should the EU and its MS identify and address the EU´s external dependencies regardless of where they originate? Perhaps, lesser dependency, on the whole, will be beneficial for the EU. Member states, however, need to seek for full capabilities and the EU must avoid replacing external dependencies with internal ones. Strategic autonomy is not useful as a doctrine but as a project with concrete policy outcomes on practical matters, benefitting all MS.
Given the imperative, there should be a collective awareness of what it means to choose cooperation in order to search for enhanced capabilities. Each one of the national capitals comes with its own priorities when it comes to the development of capabilities and its own understanding of threats. Here, the role of the strategic compass should be to bring clarity and to make sense of the multiple priorities and threat perceptions. It should be a helpful tool to assess how to move forward with existing initiatives and projects rather than creating additional ones. For example, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) are well-developed initiatives and MS should take full use of the existing tools. These existing projects can also serve the role to decrease the distrust between the older and the newer member states.
When it comes to the European strategic autonomy it looks that it is progressively coming to be the new project of 21st century for the Union. The EU needs to make sure that the initiative is integrated across Europe, and it is not used as a tool for further divergencies. Seen often as problematic, the lack of a concrete definition of strategic autonomy actually opens a space to define it based on internal and external context, keep it fluid, and allow the EU member states to decide what they want to do together in the new geopolitical context.
EU´s approach towards Strategic Partners: Improving, Securing, Redefining
The European strategic autonomy (and through the strategic compass) has necessitated a careful re-evaluation of the internal acceptance and of the EU’s geopolitical role vis-à-vis its strategic partners. The initiative can be realized only if smoothly aligned internally. Yet, the EU suffers from a variety of divisions, namely, North-South and East-West. There is no room to any longer exploit the newness of the EU membership of the Central and Eastern European members. However, it cannot be underestimated the considerable gap between the East and the West that can be found in almost every area: transport, R&D, infrastructure, digital, and more. Until the gap is sufficiently narrowed it will be hard to strive for any collective autonomy of the Union.
Additionally, for Northern Europe, strategic autonomy could never mean isolationism. Rather, it should mean that EU takes more responsibility and increases its capacities to act. In this point of view, strategic autonomy is more about responsibility than autonomy. It should focus on crisis management and look for synergies with the NATO structures. Resonating also voices from CEE, the transatlantic link must be preserved and cannot be undermined as well as formats outside the EU structures can be essential to identify shared interests with other partners.
Thus, the EU must create a role for itself that provides enough added value for its partners. Europe is slowly but surely coming into the geopolitical backyard of global affairs. If the trend continues, external factors and actors are going to decide the future of the EU. The West, itself, is becoming increasingly fragmented when it comes to the approach towards more assertive China and Russia. Perhaps, a guide for the EU when forming strategic partnerships should be the distinction between democratic and autocratic regimes. Liberal democracies should join forces and cooperate, especially when it comes to resilience building. The EU and its members will benefit by emphasizing commonalities without neglecting divergences. In this light, uniting under the last common denominator does not constitute strong coherence. Rather, using each member’s greatest strength for a commonly set ambition, can lead to geopolitical Europe.
*The summary is published within GLOBSEC GEOPE—Geopolitical Europe: Are the Member States Ready for It? Project supported by Jean Monnet Actions of the EU’s Erasmus+ program.
*The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.