‘Covid-19 and European Strategic Autonomy: Is the emergency driving an expanded ‘soft security’ concept?’


‘Covid-19 and European Strategic Autonomy: Is the emergency driving an expanded ‘soft security’ concept?’

29 October 2020

This was the fifth event in The Azure Forum 2020 Webinar Series on ‘Peace, security and defence during and beyond the Covid-19 Crisis: Lessons for future global crises’.

The webinar brought together experts with different professional backgrounds to examine policy-relevant questions surrounding ‘strategic autonomy’ that are being debated across Europe, with particular focus on what strategic autonomy means and what it does not mean in a geostrategic/security context. What are the implications of questions surrounding unanimity necessary for foreign policy and the nexus with defence matters which are not an EU competence like other areas? The expert panellists explored connections between these developments and other factors, for both Europe and Ireland,  that have since become apparent during the global health emergency. They explored the prospect of “an expanded ‘soft security’ concept as a ‘new grand narrative to link climate change with public health and perhaps other matters of ordre public, such as public morality, public order and public security’, asking whether the COVID-19 trauma will give rise to a new doctrine of Europe qui protège.

President of the European Council, Charles Michel, recently argued that ‘autonomy is not protectionism’, rather ‘[t]he last three decades, as we have continued to build the European Union, have brought the creation of the single market, the Schengen area, the euro, the great enlargement… And finally, the Treaty of Lisbon, which consolidated our institutional framework. Each of these stages has strengthened the European Union and its autonomy.’ He argues that European strategic autonomy must pursue three objectives, namely stability, disseminating European standards, and promoting European values where the globalised world has changed radically since the end of the Cold War and an ‘arc of instability’ has emerged around Europe. Aspects of these objectives include a pursuit of so-called ‘digital sovereignty’ and securing the supply of critical resources. We asked whether this is the right approach?

The political usage of terms such as strategic autonomy, sovereignty, independence, technological sovereignty and empowerment are sometimes used interchangeably. What does this move toward ‘less dependence, more influence’ actually mean; how are world-wide crises like the current global health emergency driving such strategic thinking where there is more awareness of vulnerability within traditional physical and digital supply chains; and lastly, how does ‘technological sovereignty’ sit within both European and national security and defence equations outside single market competences?

Daniel Fiott, Michael Murphy, Jens Hillebrand Pohl and Ben Tonra explored these timely questions, followed by a lively conversation during the Q&A. The session was moderated by Caitríona Heinl together with Jack McCarthy.

About the Speakers

Daniel Fiott, Security and Defence Editor, EU Institute for Security Studies

Daniel Fiott is Security and Defence Editor at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), a position he has held since late 2016. At the EUISS, Daniel analyses European defence policy, CSDP, defence capability and industrial issues and hybrid threats. He is the Institute’s representative to the Executive Academic Board of the European Security and Defence College (ESDC) and Daniel is the author of the EUISS’ annual publication, the Yearbook of European Security.Before joining the EUISS, Daniel held research positions with the Research Foundation – Flanders, the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels and the College of Europe. He is a visiting professor at the Free University of Brussels and the Brussels School of International Studies at the University of Kent. Daniel was educated at the University of Cambridge and he holds a PhD from the Free University of Brussels (VUB).

Michael Murphy, Security Contact Point, Enterprise Ireland

Michael works at Enterprise Ireland which is the Irish government agency responsible for the development of indigenous industry. He coordinates the Irish Security Research Network (serenity) which has around 1100 participants from, academia, industry, practitioner organisations, and the civil/public service, among others. He is the Irish Delegate and National Contact Point for the H2020 ‘Secure Societies’ research programme and the designated security contact for Horizon Europe that is the successor to H2020.  These responsibilities include covering European cyber security initiatives. Michael supports the Irish Department of Defence in relation to European defence R&I and Capability Development programmes.

Jens Hillebrand Pohl, Adjunct Lecturer at the Department of International and European Law, Maastricht University

Jens Hillebrand Pohl is a Harvard educated Swedish scholar and practitioner in the area of Law and Geoeconomics—the legal aspect of international economic strategy, national security and conflict management. Jens is currently Course Director at the Academy of European Law (Europäische Rechtsakademie, ERA) in Trier (Germany); Co-Director of the CELIS Institute based in Brussels and Berlin; and adjunct faculty at the United Nations University and at Maastricht University, where he is also a doctoral fellow at the Institute for Globalization and International Regulation. Prior to entering academia, he was an associate in the New York head office of the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP 2007-2011, where he focused on US financial regulation, notably the Dodd-Frank Act, bank insolvency and restructuring, and later practiced before the U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York in the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy case. He returned to Europe in 2011 to serve as legal and compliance offer at the European Financial Stability Facility, the forerunner of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Jens received his LL.B. from Stockholm University, his M.Sc. in Economics from Stockholm School of Economics, and his LL.M. from Harvard Law School, where he was a John Tjerneld Scholar and an editor of the Harvard International Law Journal. He also studied English law at the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice and is currently a PhD candidate in law at Maastricht University. He is qualified to practice law in the State of New York, England and Wales, and Ireland.

Ben Tonra, Full Professor and Head of International Relations at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations & Distinguished Fellow at The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy

Ben Tonra is Full Professor and Head of International Relations at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations. At UCD he teaches, researches and publishes in European foreign, security and defence policy, Irish foreign, security and defence policy and International Relations theory. He also serves as Vice Principal of the UCD College of Social Sciences and Law, responsible for Internationalisation and Global Engagement. Outside the university Ben is a Member of the Royal Irish Academy and has served as chair of the Academy’s Standing Committee on International Affairs. Ben is also co-leader of a research programme in EU security and defence at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), Dublin.