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Reflections on strategic autonomy at the Jean Monnet House

first 'EPRS Jean Monnet seminar' on European strategic autonomy

Written by Elena Lazarou and Philippe Perchoc.

The strategic autonomy concept can provide a useful roadmap to address the challenges of the new century, including burgeoning United States-China rivalry. To further explore this concept, and what it means for the European Union (EU), the Jean Monnet House hosted its first ‘EPRS Jean Monnet seminar’ on European strategic autonomy on 22 October 2021. The event gathered experts and practitioners from several Member States and the European Parliament.

In her opening message, First Quaestor of the European Parliament, Anne Sander (EPP, France) explained the European Parliament’s strategy for the Jean Monnet House – to create a European ‘lieu de mémoire‘ – providing a museum to reflect on the past; a Jean Monnet Academy to train European Parliament civil servants; and a place to reflect upon the main challenges facing the European Union. Anthony Teasdale, Director-General of the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) explained that this new series of Jean Monnet seminars seeks to enhance the European Parliament’s expertise on key issues, by placing EPRS at the heart of the European conversation on future challenges. The Jean Monnet House is the ideal location for such reflection, having served as the venue for debate on major historical European initiatives. Ambassador Pierre Vimont, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and former Secretary General of the European External Action Service, also attended to give a keynote speech laying out a number of challenges to be reflected upon and taken forward.

Secretary-General of the European Parliament, Klaus Welle, opened the debate on strategic autonomy, noting its potential for boosting EU independence, self-reliance and resilience. He also underlined that there are three preconditions for strategic autonomy: internal cohesion, shock absorption capacity and strategic planning capabilities. Three interlinked sections then presented key aspects of the strategic autonomy debate, featuring experts and officials from across the EU and the United States.

The first panel examined the challenges of the coming decade, introducing a foresight perspective to the discussion. Panellists in this session discussed the acceleration of trends – such as climate change, the growing gap between the developing and developed world and shifting demographics – with an impact on the global power balance. From a more geopolitical perspective, they drew particular attention to the current power vacuum, to China’s strong diplomatic presence and to global rivalries, as reflected in the Indo-pacific region. The increased tension between China and the USA over Taiwan was particularly identified as a locus for potential crisis. All the speakers agreed on the unpredictability and turbulence of the environment within which the EU is pursuing its strategic autonomy.

The second session focused on the evolving definition of strategic autonomy, from its beginnings as a defence related concept, to a much wider understanding of its context. Here, speakers delved into the progress made in the development of the EU’s defence policy, particularly the capability aspect, since the 2016 Global Strategy. At the same time, they noted other policy fields where strategic autonomy has become an aspiration and a guiding principle, including on energy policy, issues related to supply/global supply chain security, trade, and digital regulation, as well as in the financial realm. A major point discussed in this session was the divergence in views on what Member States’ goal of autonomy should be: the variance in Member State threat perceptions continues to constitute an obstacle to a common understanding and collective agreement on how to bring strategic autonomy from the theoretical realm into practical application.

The final session explored the EU’s autonomy in conjunction with its strategic partnering with key like-minded actors, the United States of America and the United Kingdom (UK). As far as the USA is concerned, it was emphasised that President Joe Biden’s ‘foreign policy for the middle classes’ has meant a recalibration of foreign policy priorities, which reflects on transatlantic relations and on the overall model of US global leadership. The USA may become more selective in its interventions, leaving a gap that an autonomous EU may possibly aim to cover. The UK’s ‘Global Britain’ foreign policy will also depart, to a degree, from previous UK foreign policy, by aiming to be much more multidimensional. Speakers reiterated that the EU and UK share an array of common interests in global affairs and international security and that partnering is of undoubted mutual benefit. The event featured highly interactive sessions throughout the day and ended with the promise to reconvene in a year’s time to re-assess current hypotheses.

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