The Twenty-seven are committed to “strategic autonomy” after verifying their dependence during the pandemic
There are geopolitical concepts that travel by word of mouth until one day they land on speeches and end up stamped on official documents. Here is one of them: “Strategic autonomy”. It is, according to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, the “objective of our lives”, and today it occupied a large part of the second and last day of the summit of Heads of State and Government of the European Union that is held in Brussels.
After intense negotiations the day before, which had them discussing Belarus, Turkey and Upper Karabakh until one in the morning, they had to park the car. here and now of the many neighborhood fires and look to the future. “The covid-19 pandemic […] it has highlighted both Europe’s assets and its dependencies, ”states the Council conclusions text approved today. And in this context, “achieving strategic autonomy together with an open economy is a key objective of the Union”.
It was already announced on Thursday by French President Emmanuel Macron, before going into the Council’s operations center to debate with his colleagues: “I see signs that Europe is beginning to see itself as a geopolitical power.” A block capable of rebuilding “its industrial and digital independence”.
Beneath the big words lies a movement of tectonic plates in the great world chess that the current crisis has laid bare. “The idea is that the EU does not depend on third countries for these issues [industria y digitalización]”Sums up a diplomat. According to the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, before entering the debate: “We need an industry that gives us a response to future potential pandemics.”
Some answers have been reflected in the conclusions document: reinforcing the Single Market, betting on a more ambitious industrial policy, reviewing competition rules, protecting oneself from “unfair and abusive” commercial practices of other countries and moving towards “digital sovereignty ”(As President Michel calls it) in key sectors such as 5G, artificial intelligence and Big Data.
Guntram Wolff, director of the European Bruegel institute, has been thinking about this concept that Macron already launched in a well-known speech at the Sorbonne in 2017. “Today the US no longer complies with the rules-based system, it does not respect multilateralism and it even faces the EU, ”explains Wolff. “China also does not accept the rules, creates new relationships and puts pressure on its trading partners to implement its own system; It has a market-driven economy, even though it does not provide access to its market, thus distorting competition. And the EU is between these two great players and thinks ‘What are my tools to succeed in this world?’
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has cited some after the summit: Any investment agreement between China and the EU must incorporate reciprocity. “If the Chinese side does not give access to its market in some areas, that naturally means that the European market will be more restricted,” she said.
That is why there are those who see in “strategic autonomy” the old specter of protectionism, in its European version. “We work in favor of an open market. We believe in free trade ”, defended the President of the Council at the end of the summit. “But at the same time we think that the EU has to be more resilient, able to set priorities and develop its capacities in strategic sectors, and also less dependent on what we have found, in a somewhat painful way, during the COVID crisis. ”.
The chaos of medical supplies shortages during the worst of the pandemic left many European leaders knocked out and out of the game. But where does the new path lead? “The line between protectionism and achieving strategic autonomy is very fine, and we will have to be careful not to cross it,” says the director of the Bruegel institute.
A current of EU countries, led by defenders of free trade such as the Dutch and Nordics, fear that under this new impulse, cooked in the guts and whose witness Germany has picked up, they will translate into a simple “buy French product” or in support measures for certain industries, and ends up generating national champions – French or German – instead of European winners. There are those who even glimpse a departure from NATO.
The debate touches on industrial sovereignty and also digital sovereignty, a train to which the EU is late (90% of European data is in the hands of non-EU companies) and misplaced (it has not been able to locate itself in the bipolar world of 5G ). “There is a risk of fragmentation of technological systems,” warns a diplomatic source. “Against the US and China we need a strong common position.” The text agreed today underlines this aspiration: 5G providers must be evaluated “on the basis of common objective criteria.”