Strategic autonomy remains an important ambition for the European Union, but the bloc is still a long way from achieving that goal amid changing global developments, analysts said.
The EU has long had the goal for it to make independent choices and act freely based on the region's interests — cutting across the economic, security, and foreign policy spheres. But, in the eyes of many, progress has fallen short of ambition.
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 bloc.
But many of those looking for further progress on the EU's goal were disappointed when, after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in February, the EU member countries once again fell into the pattern of following in the footsteps of the United States. Aside from their sustained military assistance for Ukraine, these countries also followed the US in imposing severe sanctions on Russia, regardless of the pain inflicted on their own economies and the resulting surge in energy prices and living costs for their people.
In an interview published on the website of the German newspaper Handelsblatt on Nov 14, Wolfgang Ischinger, a former chairman of the Munich Security Conference, said that although strategic autonomy is great, "Europe is light-years away from strategic autonomy".
Cui Hongjian, director of the European Studies Department at the China Institute of International Studies, said the Russia-Ukraine conflict has disrupted the EU's pace of pushing forward on the path to strategic autonomy.
At first, the bloc planned to strengthen autonomy in multiple fields at the same time — the economy, technology, energy, and security, he said. But the Ukraine conflict forced the EU to change its focus from long-term strategic planning to a short-term crisis response. This shift means the EU has ended up strengthening its security dependence on the US, the scholar said.
Sven Biscop, director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations, said that the EU countries, despite their limited stocks of arms and equipment, have done all they can to support Ukraine and "for the very first time the EU paid for arms transfers to a country at war".
Now both NATO and the EU have accelerated their efforts to increase European defense capabilities.
"Strategic autonomy remains an EU objective," Biscop said.
He said that in economic and diplomatic terms, the EU is an autonomous actor and that means it should stand up for its own interests. Recognition of this status is evident in the decision by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to visit Beijing at the start of this month, and by the actions of leaders of other EU countries in meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, also this month, at the G20 Summit on Indonesia's resort island of Bali.
"The EU certainly will continue to set its own course vis-à-vis China (and will not immediately decouple), rather than just following the US," he said.
When meeting with European leaders, President Xi emphasized a spirit of independence and autonomy when speaking on how bilateral relations can be further developed.
Zhang Lihua, a professor in the Department of International Relations and director of the Center for China-Europe Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the EU has been working toward true strategic autonomy but that it is still far from achieving that goal.
"The biggest constraint for the EU to achieve its strategic autonomy is that it has no independent defense power and must rely on the US and NATO for defense and security, so they have to follow the policies of the US in terms of defense," Zhang said.
In response to the Ukraine crisis, some European countries have further strengthened their defense capabilities, but they are still far from being able to protect themselves, she said.
Moreover, on issues such as the migrant flows into the region, it is difficult for them to make concerted efforts in these areas. And that means reduced autonomy, she said.
However, on matters such as the response to climate change, the EU still has its independence.