March 12, 2021

#BEUC2021 Panel: Is European Strategic Autonomy Growing Stronger?

The debate on European Strategic Autonomy and European sovereignty has expanded from the field of defence to the economy, trade, industrial policy, technology, and foreign policy. At the same time, it has become more global in scope, reflecting not just the dependence of European security on the US, but also the impact of the rise of China and growing great power competition.

On 12 March 2021, a webinar „Is European Strategic Autonomy Growing Stronger?“ hosted by Estonian Foreign Policy Institute (EFPI) at ICDS took place in the framework of the 6th annual high-level international conference “Baltic EU Conversations 2021: Is Europe Getting Better?”. Moderated by Kristi Raik, Director of EFPI, the panel discussion involved experts from Estonia, France, Latvia, and Sweden, and concentrated on two key questions:

  • How can Europe become more capable when determining and defending its interests and values on the global stage – with partners whenever possible, but alone when necessary?
  • How can European sovereignty be strengthened without undermining transatlantic relations, while making Europe less vulnerable to China?

Urmas Paet, Member of the European Parliament, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, entered the discussion by stating that the EU should be independent in taking care of its security and other matters, while there are no adequate reasons why Europe should be dependent on the US or some other country. However, Paet sees the added value to lie in cooperation with countries that share the same values and with NATO. Paet pointed out certain problems that occur when talking about strategic autonomy. Firstly, there are still decision makers who do not understand what strategic autonomy means. Therefore, it is preferable not to use the concept but focus on practical steps. And secondly, there is lack of political willingness by the member states to strengthen security and defence cooperation in the EU.

Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica, Parliamentary Secretary (Vice-Minister) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia, emphasized that the EU has tools in place but needs synergy to implement them. She underlined that strategic autonomy has shifted from security and defence also to other sectors, including trade but also financial sector and digital autonomy, whereas the debate on what instruments are needed continues among the member states. According to Kalniņa-Lukaševica it is necessary to strengthen resilience, but Europe should be careful not to sleepwalk towards protectionism. It is important to work on Europe’s resilience with like-minded partners like the US, Canada, Japan, and Australia.

François Heisbourg, Senior Advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) started by noting that changing interaction between major powers means that strategic autonomy is being thrust upon the European Union even if some member states do not favour it. There are several European security issues that are not dealt with by NATO or the US; for example, US leadership in the Mediterranean effectively stopped in 2013, while Russia is strongly present. He mentioned Turkey as an example of a partner for the EU with whom the latter could not deal without strategic autonomy. Heisbourg emphasized the strategic importance of China and its interaction with the US and Russia, while noting that economy and trade are not the only issues that need to be handled with China.

Hans-Christian Hagman, Senior Advisor and Head of Strategic Analysis at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, highlighted the new opportunity for US leadership and transatlantic cooperation under Joe Biden’s presidency. Therefore, we should talk more about strategic cooperation rather than strategic autonomy, whether it is about Covid crisis, climate change, arms control etc. Noting that China today is the biggest trading partner for the EU and the US is the second, Hagman raised the question whether we really want strategic autonomy from our strategic trading partners. He stressed the need for Europe to trade with both the US and China despite possible escalations and confrontations between the two, e.g., over Taiwan. Hagman saw strategic autonomy as a backup, whereas rhetorically and in action Europe should seek more cooperation especially with the US, but also with China.

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