The European Union and its member states have woken up geopolitically. Russia’s war on Ukraine taught Europeans the hard way that they can no longer rely on global markets to determine with which states and regimes they become entangled. They cannot depend on Vladimir Putin for their energy consumption, nor can the semiconductors or rare earths they need for their economic development be subject to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s calculations on whether to attack Taiwan or strangle its trade with a blockade.
The new geopolitical context has fuelled the EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy. Interdependence, however, remains not only inevitable but desirable. And it can still help strengthen and secure states, if they choose when and how to depend on whom.
The EU needs to embrace such strategic interdependence – by increasing interdependencies with key allies and partners while reducing them with rivals. Strategic autonomy is a reactive strategy to confront today’s challenges; strategic interdependence is a proactive way to meet Europe’s needs and overcome the limitations of strategic autonomy.
Strategic autonomy is about me, not you
European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, made strategic autonomy a central tenet of her mandate. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, has depicted it as “goal number one for our generation”. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and other heads of state, heavily invested in its formulation. But the concept has, from the very beginning, been besieged by criticism and dysfunctionalities.
The European Council formulated strategic autonomy in 2016 as “the capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible”. Some of its problems stem from the vagueness and circularity of that definition. Others lie in in the expansive nature of its content, which sprawled from its origins in EU defence policy to encompass a multitude of areas, from trade, health, and food to energy, supply chains, and critical minerals.
More importantly, its implementation has divided EU states, some of which fear that strategic autonomy will reinforce protectionist trends and strengthen the economic-industrial power of France and Germany while weakening their own. Hence the numerous pronouncements from countries as disparate as Spain and the Netherlands, Poland, and Finland criticising the concept or claiming the need to qualify it as “open” strategic autonomy. Aware of these problems, the European Commission, has undertaken a major report, to be delivered at October’s European Council meeting in Granada, that emphasises such “open strategic autonomy” – or, “cooperating multilaterally wherever we can, acting autonomously wherever we must”.
And the difficulties don’t end at the EU’s borders. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have created a new set of problems for the global south, including food and energy crises. Nevertheless, many countries there have honoured their commitments to international law by condemning Russia’s aggression at the United Nations. In turn, they expect the EU to honour its own commitments to an open and rules-based system. But strategic autonomy speaks of a bloc that is fundamentally reactive to the international environment.
Previously, the EU looked at the world of international sanctions defensively (hence the design of tools such as its anti-coercion instrument or blocking statute to protect itself against secondary sanctions from, primarily, China and the United States). But, over the past year, it has transformed into an entity that not only actively sanctions countries such as Russia, but is considering embarking on its own secondary sanctions path against those who help them. What is more, the bloc now follows the US – and even coordinates with it – in a broad policy of politically motivated sanctions on countries, entities, and individuals. The EU has also launched policies, such as its recent economic security strategy, that establish a framework for monitoring investment flows; sensitive supply chains; exports of critical goods, such as semiconductors; as well as aim to secure supply chains for the critical materials and technologies necessary to feed Europe’s energy and digital transition.
The EU thus no longer just seeks to guarantee its own strategic autonomy so as not to be coerced by others; it also aspires to actively condition their decisions. In doing so, it risks joining the protectionist and interventionist turn in the world economy that the Trump administration set in motion and that Joe Biden has continued and deepened, for instance through the Inflation Reduction Act.
The EU should first listen
Since Russia’s all-out invasion, it has become commonplace in Brussels and European capitals to lament that the global south is not supportive enough against Moscow: many countries condemn Russia at the UN but will not follow this up with sanctions. As EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has pointed out on numerous occasions, when it comes to making Europe’s case against Russia, “we are losing the battle of narratives.”
But, if Europeans listened more, they would see that many of these countries are also rightly concerned that the conflict is stressing the geopolitical global shift from rules and trade into power and security. ECFR polls have shown that many countries in the global south no longer see the EU as an actor that defends the open and rules-based system, but one that pushes them to join US and European efforts to defeat Russia and contain China. They see a world of sanctions, export controls, investment screening, and protectionist measures as detrimental to their growth and interests. As the Mexican foreign minister, Alicia Bárcenas, recently set out at the summit between the EU and Latin American and Caribbean states in Brussels, they, like the EU, are also concerned – and very much so – about their own strategic autonomy. They feel they are passive recipients of US, EU, and Chinese decisions which they have neither been invited to discuss or participate in.
For the global south, the problem is that the global north – having evangelised for decades an open rules-based multilateral system – has unilaterally decided to change or simply ignore those rules. Rich countries asked the states of the global south to embrace the Washington Consensus and open up their economies to prosper together. But, lately, they have embarked on a policy of massive reindustrialisation that places Biden’s “Buy American”, Macron’s “Made in Europe”, and China’s search for its own strategic autonomy ahead and above the interests of the global south.
And then act
The EU and member states need to forge reciprocal ties with countries on which they are strategically dependent or want to be strategically interdependent. The recent batch of so-called strategic partnership agreements on raw materials signed by the EU and a number of countries such as Chile or Kazakhstan are good initiatives. They show that the EU can be a reliable partner to countries wishing to reduce or diversify their dependencies from China or Russia, while creating jobs and supporting local industries. If they are successful, new countries could benefit from similar agreements and attract EU private and public investment and funding.
However, the EU should take care that its Global Gateway investment programme does not replicate China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Firstly, the EU cannot match the resources China invested in the BRI. Secondly, the BRI, with its extractive approach that results in very little industry and skilled jobs in the beneficiary countries, is a device to enhance Beijing’s independence at the cost of increasing its partner’s dependencies: this exactly what the EU should avoid.
The EU should foster interdependence. But, this time, it cannot be left to the markets: new and inevitable dependencies must be chosen, not imposed either by invisible hands or by those of rivals. Interdependence used to make countries that believed in an open and rules-based economy stronger and more united; then it became toxic and weakening. European leaders need to strategically design their relationships so as both to reinforce their decision-making capacity and bind partners more closely together, internally and externally.
The EU has heavily invested in defining, delivering, and refining strategic autonomy. But the new realities of the world demonstrate that breaking free from interdependence is not the solution. Rather, the EU needs to manage interdependence. This means taking into account its partners’ and allies’ concerns and inviting them to build a more resilient and effective interdependence. Strategic interdependence would increase the autonomy of the EU, its member states, and its allies and partners. It would help states maximise their growth and wealth, and thus their power base. It would also enhance their security, and therefore their sovereignty. The knock-on effects would be to strengthen both the rules-based multilateral order and liberal democracies across the globe.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.