The online event, held by GLOBSEC on 25 February 2021, on the potential of European strategic autonomy hosted Members of the European Parliament (MEP) representing Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and a select group of experts, academics, public administrators, and media (24 participants from 12 countries).

The MEPs in the conversation included:

Željana ZOVKO, Member of the European Parliament, European People’s Party, Croatia

Alexandr VONDRA, Member of the European Parliament, European Conservatives and Reformists Group, Czech Republic

Ivan ŠTEFANEC, Member of the European Parliament, European People’s Party, Slovakia

Dragoş TUDORACHE, Member of the European Parliament, Renew Europe, Romania

The current debate surrounding the European push for strategic autonomy is at the intersection of many areas including defence and security, trade, industry, technology, climate, and health. The event provided an opportunity to discuss and distil where the CEE region stands on moving towards a European strategic autonomy, why it may be desirable (or not), and what challenges it faces.

Željana Zovko argues for the necessity of the European strategic approach, especially regarding foreign policy and Europe’s own capacities in dealing with current crises plaguing the region. European level capacities are necessary: such as the rescue mechanism enacted with the purpose of managing natural disasters but now one of the primary tools used in combating COVID-19. As threats in the region approach, Europe needs to start building a new, unique approach to defence and security. NATO is essential to the success of this approach, but Europe cannot always rely on countries such as Turkey as a partner in helping to protect European borders. Western European countries such as France advocate heavily for strategic autonomy, likely a decision driven by the politics of former President Trump. CEE countries, however, must develop creative thinking on strategic autonomy based on compromise. After every crisis, policies established by the EU do not have the same level of assertiveness or reach when compared to countries such as China and Russia. Europe must square its strengths with its current transatlantic relations, especially with the new US administration.

Holding a very different perspective, Alexandr Vondra voiced many issues with European strategic autonomy. In a practical sense, there is no European strategic autonomy at all — just a phrase without a real foundation for the concept. European strategic autonomy is an old idea, largely driven by France, to manage European affairs and regain power on the world stage. This is not something in the interests of Central and Eastern Europe. In substance, it is the expression of European “talk” instead of serious measures to play a real role as a powerhouse. Three examples in which Europe has failed in trying to build a strategically autonomous entity include the vaccination rollout, the recent visit to Russia by the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell, and the lack of a nuclear arsenal. COVID-19 vaccination rollout has not been successful. The EU has not been able to secure a solid delivery of the vaccines, lagging behind not only the US and the UK, but the UAE and Israel as well. Josep Borrell’s visit to Russia was haste and ignored many warnings. Lastly, the EU has no nuclear deterrent that matches or competes with the arsenal of countries such as Russia and China. The message which Europe sends out to the world stage is important, and strategic autonomy is not a concept that will advance the needs of CEE countries.

Turning towards an economic perspective, Ivan Štefanec argues that strategic autonomy may have a role to play in the development of the CEE region. Economic development relies on the reinforcement of European integration, and member states should agree on continuous integration and the removal of internal market barriers. If the region has a complete internal market, it will be stronger and more competitive. The European market faces challenges; it is too dependent on imports in the energy sector, and the euro is not fully integrated across member states. Largely, the EU does not have widespread access to capital — a necessity in the face of health and economic crises. This can be somewhat attributed to the fact that the EU is a banking economy, and in order to improve its economy, it should begin to build a capital market union, moving toward the capitalist economy that exists in the US. Instead of advocating for full autonomy, strategy cooperation should be the EU’s primary focus. Trade agreements are key to economic development, and the US should be a close partner in setting standards for production and servicing. If the EU can prove itself a valuable transatlantic partner, the rest of the world will value this as well — and follow suit as the EU and the US lead in economic global standards.

Similarly, Dragoș Tudorache provides insights into aspects of the economic market that include research and development, artificial intelligence, and technological innovation. The EU has not yet invested in R&D and frontier technologies of AI, lagging behind competitors. To reach strategic autonomy in this field, Europe must invest more in the digital market space. Removing barriers to innovation and growth is required for the EU to get competitive in the global race of technology. The CEE region has the potential to be a serious competitor in the digital market space, although far from a single digital market. The barriers that prohibit competition force many to leave the region and do business elsewhere. Again, EU/US cooperation is key for the region’s success in technological R&D, which is why the concept of autonomy is slightly misfitting. Standards are a good initiative, but to think the EU can achieve them in isolation is misguided — the EU must work with like-minded partners as a part of a global conversation. This is the area that has real potential.

European strategic autonomy is an issue largely debated, where many CEE countries disagree on the best path forward for Europe and the region. The followed discussion with the participants exposed that Europe cannot succeed in isolation. The future for Europe will be embedded in its relationships both within the bloc and with its global partners as it works toward stronger defence and economic growth. The EU, however, must become more self-confident and assertive of its accomplishments, creativity, and values.

*This summary is published withinGLOBSEC GEOPE—Geopolitical Europe: Are the Member States Ready for It? Project supported byJean Monnet Actionsof the EU’s Erasmus+ program.

The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the content, 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.