Unpacking open strategic autonomy
From concept to practice
Amidst the weakening of the multilateral system, the rise of multipolarity, and the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of European strategic autonomy (ESA) has gained considerable traction. In fact, according to European Council President Charles Michel, the strategic independence of Europe is ‘our new common project for this century’ and ‘goal number one for our generation’. Long seen as a French pipedream, and first applied in 2013 to Europe’s defence and security policy, the ambition of strategic autonomy is now backed by a growing number of member states and is increasingly applied to a broad range of policy areas, including industrial and trade policy.
Open strategic autonomy
The EU’s desire for more autonomy in the trade and industrial domain has been given a boost by the Covid-19 pandemic, which crucially exposed the vulnerabilities in the global production and supply chains. Even the Netherlands, which was long sceptical of previous (French) proposals for strategic autonomy, acknowledges the risks of asymmetric dependencies in strategic sectors and the growing need for the EU to protect its economies against economic coercion and unfair trade practices.
Until recently, the Netherlands, along with some other member states, was concerned that the ambitions for strategic autonomy would lead to an interventionist industrial policy, would fuel protectionism, would provide German and French ‘industry champions’ with an unfair advantage, and would erode the interdependence that has brought Europe so many benefits.
To assuage such concerns, the European Commission insisted that its goal is ‘open strategic autonomy’, and that strategic autonomy can be achieved without resorting to protectionism and while preserving the open economy and the benefits of interdependence. In a recently published joint non-paper with Spain and another recently published joint statement with France, the Netherlands gave its cautious backing to this new open strategic autonomy agenda.
But what does this agenda look like in practice? What are the implications for the EU’s industrial and trade policy and for some of the EU’s key industrial ecosystems? To what extent are the twin aims of achieving strategic autonomy and preserving an open economy actually compatible with one another? And how can a member state such as the Netherlands both contribute to and benefit from the EU’s open strategic autonomy agenda? This report will address these questions.
Luuk Molthof, Research Fellow at the EU & Global Affairs Unit of the Clingendael Institute
Dick Zandee, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Security Unit of the Clingendael Institute
Giulia Cretti, Junior Researcher at the EU & Global Affairs Unit of the Clingendael Institute