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EU Strategic Autonomy: Unpacking the 'essentially contested concept'

Iulian Romanyshyn / Jul 2021

EU foreign and security chief, Josep Borrell. Photo: European Union 2021

 

There are few buzzwords that are more popular in the Brussels quarters than strategic autonomy. ‘Effective strategic autonomy’, ‘smart strategic autonomy’, ‘open strategic autonomy’ – the conceptual proliferation is now fully underway in EU discourse and documents. While this expansion is symptomatic of the EU’s drive for more self-sufficient standing in a growing number of policy fields – from industry and trade to energy and health – all the various adjectives reflect the absence of agreed understanding of what strategic autonomy means, as well as the lack of established boundaries of where it starts and where it ends. Strategic autonomy has become what political scientists call ‘an essentially contested concept’, one that involves endless disputes on its proper use on the part of its users.

The notion of strategic autonomy originated from the field of defence dating back to the launch of the European Security and Defence Policy in the end of the 1990s. Back then, the idea was tied to the area of crisis management where the EU was expected to launch a military mission in cases when the United States or NATO were unwilling or unable to provide support for such action. The 1998 British-French Declaration of Saint-Malo that kickstarted the nascent EU defence policy has referred to ‘the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, […], in order to respond to international crises’. Strategic autonomy was later explicitly mentioned in the 2016 EU Global Strategy as the EU’s ‘ambition’ while the Council of the EU later the same year defined it as ‘capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible’.

Even though in the area of security and defence strategic autonomy seems to be an agreed objective among EU member states, it is here where the concept remains most contested compared to other policy fields. As the substance of EU Common Security and Defence Policy expanded over the last two decades from crisis management to protection of the Union and external capacity building, the meaning of strategic autonomy has become less clear-cut. There are two substantively different dimensions of the concept depending whether one looks at defence or security.

With respect to defence, strategic autonomy is about developing capabilities to better protect European interests and values. This is the meaning that is usually invoked when EU policy makers talk about the need for Europe to assume more responsibilities for its own defence and therefore contribute to fairer burden-sharing within the transatlantic alliance. This includes strengthening the European defence industrial base, collaborative capability development through PESCO and other defence initiatives, and maintaining a credible military force to respond to international crises. Beyond material capabilities, ‘institutional capacity’ enabling the EU to act also needs to be added to the equation in light of the growing role of the European Commission and other institutions in this field. From this perspective, strategic autonomy is a means, but the ends which it supposed to serve are not always clear and are currently a subject of negotiations among EU member states on the Strategic Compass.

When it comes to security, however, strategic autonomy takes a different meaning, that is of managing interdependence and reducing vulnerability to external influence. This is where many of the concept’s inconsistencies lie which sometimes lead to questionable policy decisions. Critics contend that if strategic autonomy is about reducing the EU’s dependence on the US protective umbrella it risks either undermining Washington’s commitment to European security or driving Europe towards neutrality in the power competition between the US and China. It is true that today even the staunchest supporters of strategic autonomy repeatedly admit that decoupling from the US is out of question. Yet, it is not easy to square the circle between Europe’s willingness to decide for itself and its call for closer transatlantic coordination in the face of geopolitical challenges, as controversies around the Nord Stream 2 and the EU-China investment deal demonstrate.

There are further examples of such inconsistencies. The EU’s decision to keep the UK out of its satellite navigation system Galileo is perhaps conceivable on the ground of raising costs of the Brexit bill and thereby deterring another skeptical EU member state from leaving the bloc. But cutting defence ties with a capable and like-minded military power would leave both the EU and the UK worse off. More recently, the EU unveiled a long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, wherein it pledges to develop a meaningful maritime presence in the region. At the same time, the new strategy endorses the EU to ‘further develop partnerships and strengthen synergies’ with regional security and defence players. In practice, this may well mean increasing, not reducing, dependency on others.

It is beyond doubt that finding a fine line between autonomy and dependence, engagement and isolation is a difficult balancing act. This is a familiar predicament for the EU. Faced with a difficult choice, the bloc oftentimes tries to have it both ways which manifests itself in generating new conceptual vocabulary that is contradictory in terms. ‘Principled pragmatism’, for instance, has become a main leitmotiv of EU Global Strategy, but rather than solving the EU’s strategic dilemma of acting in line with values or interests, it has arguably added more fuel for criticising the EU of flip-flopping and hypocrisy. If the EU is to become a geopolitical player who speaks ‘the language of power’, it cannot shy away from making hard choices in favour of leveraging interdependence and deploying much more forcefully its political and economic clout in relations with friends and foes.

For many, the debate about what strategic autonomy means may be too irritating, too abstract or even beyond the point. But as the notion of strategic autonomy stretched even further from security and defence to other policy areas, it has already become an indispensable part of the EU’s narrative of a stronger global actor, so sweeping the discussion under the rug is not a helpful option. This is what EU policy makers discovered a few weeks ago, when a discord about the open strategic autonomy prevented them from reaching a decision on the future of EU trade policy. To minimise contestation, greater clarity about multiple dimensions of strategic autonomy, as well as better awareness of its potential shortcomings are necessary. Far from a dull and irrelevant debate, the evolving conversation about strategic autonomy boils down to the question of how to make the EU fit for purpose in the 21st century, be it through offensive (developing capabilities), defensive (reducing vulnerabilities) line of action or a combination of both.

 

Iulian Romanyshyn

Iulian Romanyshyn

July 2021

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