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September 15, 2020

Europe

EU: What “strategic autonomy” actually means

BY Antonio Barroso, Carsten Nickel

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Heads of the EU institutions and Chinese President Xi Jinping convened for a high-level online meeting yesterday. The gathering replaced the initially envisaged EU-China summit, for which German Chancellor Angela Merkel had intended to bring all 27 member-state leaders, the Brussels institutions, and their Chinese guests together in the city of Leipzig. While the German EU Council presidency still hopes that the large-scale version of the meeting can go ahead in the future, yesterday’s gathering was intended to address pressing issues in Sino-European relations in the meantime.

Despite recently tougher rhetoric from the European side, there is still hope for the investment agreement talks to be concluded soon, after seven years of talks. Overall, many in the EU believe that the European shift towards clearer language – on everything from Covid-19-related fake news to the situation in Hong Kong – is the precondition for Beijing to take the EU’s economic demands more seriously. In that sense, the EU’s evolving approach to China should be seen in the wider context of its “strategic autonomy” agenda.

Surviving in the (global) jungle

A collateral effect of Covid-19, the pursuit of Europe’s strategic “independence” has indeed been made the central goal of the EU’s external relations. This should not be interpreted as the integration of member states’ foreign, security, and economic policies, but rather as the acknowledgment that the EU needs to start tying all these different areas together to avoid becoming a rule-taker on the global stage.

Regarding China, for instance, EU governments often prefer to act bilaterally in the pursuit of their national interests. But Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy during the pandemic has reinforced those advocating for a more forceful approach towards the Asian giant. The emerging European belief the Sino-European relationship is fundamentally unbalanced will probably produce clearer outcomes on the economic front than on political issues. For instance, the EU is still committed to reaching negotiated solutions regarding trade disagreements. But the European Commission has initiated a policy review that will see the Union strengthening its capabilities to counter unfair trade practices (e.g. legislation to limit the distortionary effect of foreign subsidies on the internal market).

As for the United States, EU policymakers are in a wait-and-see mode due to the November presidential election. A victory by Joe Biden is perceived as an opportunity to quickly restore cooperation on issues such as climate change and Iran. But the EU will continue to push for trade deals around the world and use them to achieve climate and other goals. In the meantime, Brussels will try to strike a negotiated solution with the Trump administration in regard to any potential trade disputes (e.g. regarding the WTO’s upcoming decision on Boeing).

Regarding Russia, finally, Merkel’s toughening rhetoric in the Navalny case highlights that support from the biggest sponsor of pragmatic dialogue with Moscow should no longer be taken for granted. At home and among Western allies, Merkel will need President Vladimir Putin to provide evidence for the continued benefits of cooperation. This could mean a renewed Russian turn to Merkel as the EU’s prime interlocutor on questions such as Ukraine and Belarus. The economic dimension of Russian gas imports makes for different balancing acts. It is telling, however, that despite this, the idea of separating private commercial endeavors (such as Nord Stream 2) from the EU’s “geopolitical” position seems no longer viable.