EU strategic autonomy 2013-2023: From concept to capacity

Briefing 08-07-2022

EU strategic autonomy (EU-SA) refers to the capacity of the EU to act autonomously – that is, without being dependent on other countries – in strategically important policy areas. These can range from defence policy to the economy, and the capacity to uphold democratic values. In order to structure the debate on strategic autonomy into analytical categories, this briefing assumes that by and large there have been several phases to the debate about EU-SA, each with a different focus. From 2013 to 2016, it was mainly seen as an approach to security and defence matters. From 2017 to 2019, EU-SA was considered as a way to defend European interests in a hostile geopolitical environment, marked by Brexit, the Trump Presidency and China's growing assertiveness. In 2020, the Covid 19 pandemic shifted the focus to mitigating economic dependence on foreign supply chains. Since 2021, the scope of EU-SA has been widened to virtually all EU policy areas, including that of the EU's values, while the expression 'strategic autonomy' was paradoxically used less and was often replaced by similar concepts, such as 'open strategic autonomy', 'strategic sovereignty', 'capacity to act' and 'resilience'. This briefing uses 'strategic autonomy' and 'strategic sovereignty' as equal and interchangeable terms. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, steps towards achieving EU-SA are being taken, while the concept nevertheless remains blurred by the variation in terminology. Achieving EU-SA will require a common vision, political will and capabilities to implement it, and a distinct role for the EU, between Member States and global players. Visual tools, such as the 360° strategic autonomy wheel (in Annex 1), can help to identify dependencies and understand complex interdependencies between policy areas. Political will was expressed in the European Council's Versailles Declaration of 11 March 2022, which aims at greater EU-SA in defence, energy supply and the economy. However, EU-SA can be constrained by Member States and non-EU (third) countries or international organisations that challenge the EU. This EU strategic autonomy monitor is the first in a series on the state of play in the debate and implementation of EU-SA. It will be complemented by thematic papers in the 'strategic autonomy 360°' series.