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Uphill battle for EU to set out own path

By CHEN YINGQUN | China Daily | Updated: 2022-01-11 09:04

EU flags flutter in front of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, on Oct 2, 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

Finding ways of achieving strategic autonomy remains elusive, experts say

Policymakers in the European Union see the importance of pursuing true strategic autonomy but just how to achieve that goal amid divisions within the bloc and rapid changes on the international landscape is far from clear, analysts said.

The EU wants to make independent choices and act freely according to its interests whether in the economic or political spheres, yet it has found itself to be lacking in autonomy, said the analysts, who point out that the bloc is falling victim to the decisions of the United States in an increasingly fierce rivalry between major powers.

Ding Chun, director of the Center for European Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that ever since the European debt crisis broke out in 2009, the EU has been anxious about its declining influence in a globalized world. The academic cites the EU's shrinking share of the world economy and the fact that it relies on the US for its security.

Over the past decade, the EU has issued many plans focused on the quest for strategic autonomy. One proposal issued late last year, called the Strategic Compass, calls for the creation of a rapid-reaction force of 5,000 personnel by 2025.The document detailed an "urgent desire to maintain unity internally and seek strategic autonomy externally", Ding said.

Tian Dewen, deputy director of the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said strategic autonomy has been on the EU's agenda since the adoption of its Global Strategy report in 2016. It was given even higher priority in 2021 after a series of events that served as a reality check for the EU.

Tian cited the US' abrupt withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, a move that put the security of its EU allies in jeopardy once again. Also, France was deeply affronted when the US, the United Kingdom, and Australia signed the AUKUS security pact in September and Australia abandoned its plan to purchase French submarines worth $66 billion.

Though the EU is now more willing to achieve strategic autonomy, member states differ in their economic conditions and strategic objectives. These divergences among member countries have increased the difficulties for the bloc to achieve strategic autonomy.

Tian said that France and Germany, despite being the "engine "of European integration, are divided on the issue of strategic autonomy. Due to historical reasons, Germany does not want conflicts between the EU's strategic autonomy and NATO's collective defense system. In addition, some countries in Central and Eastern Europe and some northern countries are placing more faith in the US commitment to military protection for their security.

A report released by the European Defense Agency in December said that the defense expenditure of the 26 EU countries excluding Denmark accounted for 1.5 percent of their combined gross domestic product in 2020. Among them, 19 EU countries increased their defense expenditure year-on-year, while the joint investment in defense projects within the EU decreased.

Against this backdrop, Europe's quest for strategic autonomy remains an ideal but one that is not easy to realize, the analysts said.

Two engines

Zheng Chunrong, head of the Germany Research Institute at Tongji University in Shanghai, said that the two engines of the EU both face uncertainties. Germany has just formed its first three-party coalition government in history and the new government would inevitably need to spend more time and energy on coordinating positions and balancing interests among the ruling parties. That means German Chancellor Olaf Scholz might not have as strong a say as his predecessor Angela Merkel within the government, and could see him become more cautious.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron faces a presidential election this year. France took up the EU presidency on Jan 1 and will hold that position until June 30. The period may provide opportunities for Macron to work on his electoral campaign and push forward EU strategic autonomy, but it may also bring uncertainties, Zheng said.

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