To the uninitiated, the phrase strategic autonomy seems jarringly technical. But officials in Brussels can’t get enough of it. It peppers policy documents, speeches and newspaper articles. It means independence or, even more broadly, the ability of a state to pursue its own national interests and adopt its preferred foreign policy without being dependent on or being manipulated by other foreign states.
It was in 2013 that the phrase strategic autonomy started circulating, initially in the context of security and defence concerns. Three years later it was picked up in a glossy new global strategy, which was launched after the result of the Brexit referendum. This year it looks set to influence the EU on fields more varied.
EU trust in the US has not recovered since its disintegration during the Trumpian era. Poor relations with the White House forced Europe to take stock of its defence situation: it could no longer rely on its heavily armed and wealthy transatlantic cousins as a backup.
Frankly, the bloc was well overdue a reevaluation of its own deference needs. However, even though many America First caps have been ripped off heads (and thrown away or stored until 2024), the underpinning credence did not leave government when Trump did. American preferentialism still governs its politics both national and international.
What’s more, the rise of China as a major industry and trade partner, cementing its position as a top world power, has jolted the EU into reflection and then action. China, following global efforts at assertion and its anti-democratic actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have labelled it a rival in defence but also in technology and trade.
Time to get digital
Now European strategic autonomy enthusiasts have started to set their sights on the digital economy. It’s no use waiting for other countries to make the rules. Big tech has been out of control for too long. Critics claim it is monopolistic, consumer rights aren’t being respected and privacy is being sacrificed.
The Digital Services Act (DSA) coming out later this year is tackling these issues. For Brussels, it’s a huge opportunity. Regulation that fosters competitiveness while protecting consumer rights will be a boost for the industry.
Certain industries and technologies are considered critical for Europe and its role in the world economy. These include batteries, energy, hydrogen, artificial intelligence and the cloud.
These will all benefit from EU policies, plans and funding. Some – mostly northern – member states claim that top-down initiatives like the DSA have a mixed record. They stress that public-private coordination is crucial.
The ongoing tussle over cloud services is a perfect example of the delicate balance needed to be struck between open strategic autonomy policies in digital industries.
The way forward
The EU needs to adjust to a new geopolitical reality: the US’s America First policy is here to stay, but it doesn’t negate the need for strong transatlantic political and economic ties. China’s growth may be unstoppable, so strong links – trade and otherwise – with alternative partners and allies in Asia are essential. Regarding Chinese relations, there are two options: disconnect or engage. The disconnect option would be a radical counter strategy. It would be embedded in a belief that China’s mission is to render Europe, Africa and Asia dependent on its industries, technologies and market.
Such a dependency would engender blackmail, instability, human rights abuses and a general monopoly. Its proponents would like to have the EU disconnect: that is, stop investing, stop taking investment, diverging European technologies and deconstructing markets.
Realistically, though, we must engage. As we have seen, European digital industries are investing strongly in rebalancing competitive advantages. The prevalent consensus of an international division of labour, with mostly open borders, is here to stay.
At its core, strategic autonomy is about enshrining countries’ or group’s independence. But it is not about building walls or closing down communications. It’s certainly not a protectionist policy. True strategic autonomy will make the global economy stronger for the EU and its allies.
Gérard Pogorel is professor emeritus of economics at the Telecom Paris Graduate School of Engineering.