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Sophie Vanhoonacker: The Formation EU’s Strategic Autonomy and Its Strategic Positioning

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

The Formation EU’s Strategic Autonomy and Its Strategic Positioning

in the Context of Global Power Shifts

In October 2023, the Saint Pierre International Security Center (SPCIS) initiated a series of interviews titled “China’s Global Rise: Conversations with 50 EU Scholars”, aiming to deeply understand how EU scholars perceive China’s global rise and the EU’s strategic response through high-quality, unstructured interviews from multiple perspectives. The interviews will be published on SPCIS’ social media platforms such as WeChat public account, website, and LinkedIn.

On November 3rd, the first session of interviews was conducted in person at Maastricht University. Hengyi Yang, Executive Director of SPCIS, and Professor Sophie Vanhoonacker, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University, delved into how the EU responds to pressures from both China and the US in today’s changing international landscape, becoming accustomed to strategic thinking, and forming its own autonomous geopolitical strategy.

Professor Vanhoonacker’s research focuses on the institutional aspects of EU external relations and administrative governance in the area of EU foreign and security policy. In her latest work, she focuses on the emerging EU-level system of diplomacy and the EU’s response to the rapidly changing international geopolitical context. She also holds a Chair in administrative governance and has long been involved in teaching courses related to EU foreign policy. Professor Vanhoonacker’s research has been published in prestigious academic journals such as the Journal of Public Affairs, the Journal of Common Market Studies, West European Politics, and the Journal of European Integration, and she has edited and published several books on European foreign policy.

This article summarizes the key messages from the interview, and the content has been reviewed and authorised for publication by Professor Vanhoonacker.

Shifts in the Global Power Structure and the EU’s Changing Perceptions

Yang: Thank you, Professor Vanhoonacker, for accepting our interview with the Saint Pierre International Security Center. Since our talk in June, especially in the past month, the world seems to have undergone earth-shaking changes. Could you first briefly talk about your observations and understanding of the global situation?

Prof. Vanhoonacker: Indeed, we are in a world where power structures are shifting, leading to many tensions. During the Cold War, the balance between the US and the USSR was relatively stable, despite the multiple regional conflicts. Today, we are in a period of transition whereby the US as the unipolar power is challenged by countries like China and India and also has to deal with the military aggression of Russia in Ukraine, making the overall power structure very unstable. Secondly, we are also facing new issues, such as the development of emerging technologies, which have a lot of potential, but also many power shifts and new challenges. The EU Horizon project, “Reignite Multilateralism via Technology” (REMIT), led by Maastricht University, tries to identify and address a series of challenges brought by technology, which is very interesting. Additionally, there are global threats like climate change, which on one hand require common solutions, but on the other are affected by geopolitics and are facing difficulties.

Yang: Then how would the EU view this power shift? And how would this perception be reflected in the EU’s foreign policy?

Prof. Vanhoonacker: The EU is in the first place an economic power; it is therefore not surprising that it has been reflecting on how it can use this power to better protect its interests in this rapidly changing world. In the past relatively stable 30 years, the EU has mainly profiled itself as a strong proponent of free trade and multilateral cooperation. This is not surprising since as a market power, it very much profited from this approach. But today, the EU is concerned that this strategy may not be enough to safeguard its interests and therefore both the EU institutions and the member states reflect how they can better integrate their security interests into their policies towards third countries. The concepts of “Geopolitical Commission” and “open strategic autonomy” proposed by Commission President Von der Leyen are clear expressions of this shift. Also at the level of the member states, there are increasing discussions about so-called ‘European sovereignty’ in a broad range of areas ranging from energy to health, the digital field etc. In a world where a level playing field is under pressure, the EU does not want to be “naïve” but act more strategically in order to withstand security risks. The EU does not want to support “systemic confrontation” but rather favours a defensive geostrategy through which it can make sure to better defend its economic and security interests. A good example is the EU’s “International Procurement Instrument” (IPI) which requires reciprocal opening of public procurement markets by foreign governments, aiming to address protectionism in third-country procurement markets. Essentially, the IPI uses the EU’s economic and regulatory influence to motivate countries like China to open their markets to EU companies, but the goal is to promote reciprocity, not suppression.

Tensions between Brussels’ Considerations and Member States’ Autonomous Diplomacy

Yang: Is this turn towards ‘open strategic autonomy’ more a consideration at the level of EU decision-making, or is it the result of the collective will of member states?

Prof. Vanhoonacker: The term ‘open strategic autonomy’ has been coined by the European Commission but also a country like France has been very much pushing for more European sovereignty both in the area of security and external economic relations. Realising such a strategic shift is however challenging. The EU realizes that if it follows a policy of “decoupling,” it may in the first place harm itself because it can no longer rely on itself in supply chains as it did historically. So, the European Commission more recently has been talking about a policy of de-risking and diversification rather than decoupling. As it is difficult for EU member states to address the challenges brought by current world changes on their own, the EU level is best placed to play a more coordinating role, making a Geopolitical Commission very important.

However, Brussels is still not very accustomed to this kind of strategic thinking because the EU’s strong international economic and regulatory influence has been largely accidental, rather than the result of strategic advancement. This point is well captured by Anu Bradford’s concept of the “Brussels Effect,” which posits that due to the size of the EU’s internal market and the strictness of its rules, multinational corporations choose to comply with these high standards for cost and efficiency reasons, applying them to their global operations, thereby promoting the international diffusion of EU standards. She argues that this diffusion is not due to the EU’s strategic design but a market-driven result. Hence, the EU decision-making bodies recognize the increased importance of geostrategic thinking and coordinated action at the EU level, but they are still adapting to how to design such strategies.

At the same time, the strategic considerations of the European Commission do not fully represent the diplomatic views of all member states. There are significant differences in the focus. For example, countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden are reluctant to move away from free trade policies, but France is a fierce advocate of increased European sovereignty, not only in the area of security, but also the environment, digital technology, health etc. These ideas were already clearly articulated in Macron’s significant speech at the Sorbonne University in 2017.

EU’s Strategic and Identity Positioning Amidst China-US Competition

Yang: In the process of forming this strategic thinking within the EU, what role has China’s rise or the competition between China and the US played?

Professor Vanhoonacker: First, the EU’s perspective on China’s development is somewhat different from that of the United States. From the 1990s until 2003, when China and the EU established a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” the relationship between the two went through a so-called “honeymoon period.” The EU was very pleased to see China developing towards a market economy, and the hope was that it would become more and more like Western countries. However, around 2015, the EU was increasingly realizing that this would not necessarily be the case. Initiatives such as “Belt and Road” also sparked some suspicions, but at that time the role of economic partnership was still predominant, with security considerations being a secondary aspect. The real turning point that accelerated the EU’s consciousness of its vulnerability was the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, painfully illustrating its over-dependence on China for strategic goods such as masks and other health products. The fear was that when China also had strategic needs, it could cut off supplies to the EU at any time. Therefore, in 2021, the European Commission proposed the concept of “open strategic autonomy”, which is a first step towards a more strategic approach to use its trade policy for more strategic purposes, including the diversification of supply chains. This does not mean that the EU wants to cut off free trade but rather aims to secure the supply chain of strategic materials.

Yang: How would the EU define such strategic materials? It seems that the process of strategizing materials like masks is also difficult to foresee.

Professor Vanhoonacker: It is of course not just about health products but also chips for high-tech products, rare earth materials, clean technology etc. Currently, the EU is identifying the areas where it is most vulnerable and starting to develop policies that reduce its critical dependency on third countries and increase its resilience in terms of supply chains and critical infrastructure. Especially when it comes to China, the US does not hesitate to keep its allies ‘alert’. In 2018 for instance, the U.S. government believed that China’s acquisition of the Mapper company located in Delft, the Netherlands, would pose a risk of sensitive technology leakage, and thus pressured the Dutch government to intervene in China’s potential acquisition of this producer of lithography infrastructure for the semiconductor industry. In the end, the Dutch government had ASML step in for the acquisition. This is a good example of pressure coming from the other side of the Atlantic on the EU.

Yang: Would such pressure bring a dilemma to the EU’s diplomatic strategy? Or would the EU choose a hedging strategy to alleviate the pressure?

Professor Vanhoonacker: The United States will continue to exert pressure to make sure that the EU’s attitude towards China is more aligned with U.S. interests. The EU itself considers China an important economic partner, but on issues such as technology security and geopolitical security, some of China’s acquisition behaviours do indeed raise some suspicions. Although the EU is recognizing that economic cooperation with China is still important and, in its interest, it is to be expected that geopolitical security will become more of a priority. At the same time, for the EU, adherence to the principles of the free market and democratic elections remains an important value orientation.

Editor: YANG Hengyi



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