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Europe wants to get better at planning for the worst

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GRANADA — The European Union is beset by doom and gloom — from wars on its doorstep to inflation and the climate crisis — not to mention political instability in the U.S. and rivalry with China.

All too often, the EU has been overtaken by events, which makes the task of getting better at planning for the worst all the more pressing. 

As European leaders fought political fires at their informal summit last week in Granada, unaware that Palestinian militants would launch their devastating raid on Israel a day later, they quietly started a debate on strategic foresight.

At this stage still very much a thought experiment, the concept of “open strategic autonomy” is being championed by host Spain, the current president of the Council of the EU. The idea reflects a shift in priorities to navigate an increasingly uncertain world, and a departure from the green and digital transitions that have dominated the agenda in recent years.

There’s more: To strengthen the concept, proponents are calling to create a role in the next European Commission responsible for open strategic autonomy. There’s even talk that Thierry Breton, the dynamic French commissioner in charge of the EU’s internal market, might be the man for the job. 

Breton is certainly an enthusiastic supporter of the concept. But it’s also no secret that he’s lobbying to land the top Commission job.

Contradiction in terms

To the uninitiated, the concept of open strategic autonomy sounds like an oxymoron — that’s because it is.

After the hyper globalized early 2000s, trust in liberalism started to erode. Then the Trump-era trade wars, COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed Europe’s economic reliance on powerful nations that are either latent — or overt — strategic rivals.

“The United States and China are becoming more self-reliant, and some voices were saying that this is what we have to do,” an official with the Spanish presidency told POLITICO. “But that’s not a good idea for Europe.”

Instead, open strategic autonomy is about shielding the EU just enough to protect its economic security while remaining an international player. In other words, it means “cooperating multilaterally wherever we can, acting autonomously wherever we must.”

It’s a grudging acceptance that great power politics now dominate economics.

Some are calling to create a role in the next European Commission responsible for open strategic autonomy — there’s even talk that Thierry Breton might be the man for the job | Fred Tanneau/AFP via Getty Images

This also means that open strategic autonomy is like Play-Doh: Because the concept rests on a sort of sliding scale of openness and protection, countries and leaders can pull it either way to interpret what it means in practice.

Essentially, the Spanish Presidency’s big push is about providing a liberal-flavored alternative to (French) protectionism.

What is not yet clear is the idea’s scope: Is it a narrow concept that can, for example, guide trade negotiations? Or should it equip the EU to guard against geopolitical risks of the first order, such as a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan?

Looking forward

The open strategic autonomy push is about countering an inward turn that was all about cutting dependencies, such as the EU’s reliance on Russian energy, after President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

“[We’re] missing a more balanced and forward-looking strategy” following the Versailles Declaration, the Spanish official said, referring to a first response by EU leaders to the Russian attack of February 24, 2022.

Spain delivered its contribution to the debate in the form of a thick paper drafted by its foresight office, in coordination with over 80 ministries across the EU. 

In this Europe of the future, the bloc should focus on supporting cutting-edge companies in everything from food to green energy, health and tech. 

“This approach should focus on the production of goods with high added value,” the authors write. There should also “be room for it to encompass the internationally-competitive production of basic goods that are crucial for survival” like medicine — a pandemic-era lesson.

One of the more colorful ideas includes scaling up algae, insect, and microbe-based proteins to feed European livestock — rather than feeding them American soy.

Brussels should also ink trade deals, boost R&D budgets, cut red tape, prevent state aid races between EU countries, create EU-wide strategic stockpiles of key raw materials and recycle more.

The open strategic autonomy push is about countering an inward turn that was all about cutting dependencies, such as the EU’s reliance on Russian energy, after President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine | Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

Experts see the Spanish approach as an attempt to counterbalance the EU’s more defensive trade policies of the past few years, including the recent economic security strategy.

The Spanish paper puts “a positive spin on Europe’s ability to shape this world,” said Tobias Gehrke, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s quite a different tone to the economic security strategy, which is in a sense fairly negative, which focuses on risks, risks, risks — and much less on the opportunities.”

For free traders, this liberal flavor offers a welcome break from the barren recent years, when trade deals have been few and far between.

“Companies need support in the form of reliable trade rules and a regulatory environment with little bureaucracy in order to better diversify sales and supply sources — in other words, to be able to engage in the de-risking also called for by policymakers,” said Volker Treier, who’s in charge of foreign trade for the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce. 

A major test of openness will be whether the EU manages to seal a long-awaited trade agreement with the Mercosur bloc — which groups Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. The French government has opposed the pact and was instrumental in calling for additional environmental safeguards that have stalled a final agreement.

Meet the Veep

With European elections and the appointment of a new Commission looming next year, the ideas box is open for key candidates and dossiers for the next five-year term. 

Some countries are even floating the idea of putting a Commission vice president in charge of open strategic autonomy.

“The responsibility of spearheading the Union’s open strategic autonomy should be explicitly included in the portfolio of an executive vice president,” the Netherlands Belgium, Finland, Portugal and Slovakia wrote in a discussion document over the summer.

And with industry chief Breton in the running for a top Brussels job, the portfolio seems tailor-made for the energetic Frenchman, who has already launched bills on critical raw materials, microchips, and the defense industry, and pushed for the EU to ramp up its own vaccine production during the pandemic.

Breton was on a French endorsement drive at the weekend in Bordeaux at President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party congress, which Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also attended. 

“We remain committed to continuing to implement the European agenda for strategic autonomy and a strong Europe,” Breton tweeted after meeting with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne in Bordeaux.

Von der Leyen indirectly lauded her French commissioner in Bordeaux, praising several tech bills championed by Breton for “strengthen[ing] our technological sovereignty” — “sovereignty” is the tougher term the French prefer over “open strategic autonomy.”

Spain is now working with the upcoming Belgian presidency, which starts on January 1, to shepherd the topic of open strategic autonomy, as well as EU institutional reform, into a big strategy paper due next year.

Thierry Breton’s office declined to comment on the record for this story.

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