Covid and Europe’s strategic awakening

Daniel Fiott | 11 November 2020


Daniel Fiott took part in an expert panel discussion on ‘Covid-19 and European Strategic Autonomy’ in October 2020 as part of The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy 2020 series on ‘Peace, security and defence during and beyond the Covid-19 Crisis: Lessons for future global crises’. He argues that the pandemic has encouraged the EU to take its strategic autonomy more seriously and it has led to a wider reflection on what more the Union can do to protect its citizens.


Despite the numerous tragic consequences of the pandemic, one positive side-effect that has been brought into sharp relief is the European Union’s dependencies and place in the world.

The first thing the crisis has exposed is the immaturity of European solidarity during times of acute crisis. The brutal truth is that governments recoiled behind national borders during the first spike, and it took some time before coordinated EU responses were put in place. The EU as an idea and set of institutions took an unfortunate hit, as citizens looked on in disbelief at an inability to secure cross-border supplies of medical equipment. Here, the EU was initially left powerless in an area it had no competence for – health was guarded as a national prerogative and, even though numerous studies had predicted that a pandemic was on the horizon, the EU was not invested with the tools it needed to manage the crisis.

The second factor revealed and re-emphasised by the pandemic is that the EU cannot be naïve when it comes to critical supplies to its economy. Even before the pandemic struck, Europeans were already getting to grips with the idea that supply chains could be politicised and that new technological developments and investments require careful scrutiny from a security perspective. The analogy became even clearer: if the EU suffered by not having a steady supply of face masks and hand sanitizer during the first wave of the pandemic, what would the equivalent critical dependencies look like in domains such as telecommunications, digital systems, data, computing, critical raw materials and space and what should the Union do to lower them? Added to this was a recognition that the EU needed to be more autonomous in security and defence, especially given the United States’ general strategic direction of traffic towards China.

Love it or hate it, EU Strategic Autonomy is here to stay

Most EU governments have applauded the European Commission’s efforts on investment screening, industrial strategy and investments in space, Artificial Intelligence and data. They have been keen to set up new initiatives in security and defence too, with mechanisms such as the European Defence Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation designed to enhance EU cooperation. Member States have also agreed to driving the EU security and defence agenda even further with a new initiative called the “Strategic Compass”, which is ultimately supposed to give greater clarity when it comes to the way the EU acts on security and defence and the capabilities it needs. While most Member States agree that the EU needs to develop capabilities in order to enhance its ability to act in the world, there is disagreement over the terminology used to package these efforts.

Terms such as “strategic autonomy” or “European sovereignty” elicit a lot of emotion – either you love them or you hate them. For some, these terms are either held up as a rallying cry to do more as Europeans, whereas for others they are held aloft as representing the EU’s naivety in even daring to think that it can act for itself. Absurdly, some even call for the complete suppression of the words – history shows us that the censorship of words cannot do away with underlying realities.

Of course, several strawmen arguments are associated with the terms – blink and you will miss them. For example, some suggest that because the EU currently has a low level of autonomy, it should give up any ambition for autonomy in the future. This is akin to saying that if you are not a home owner today, you should give up any aspiration of buying one in the future. Strategic autonomy is not a description of present realities but an aspiration. Neither is it possible to decouple the terms “strategic” and “autonomy” – no actor can be strategic without some degree of autonomy.

To extend the home owning analogy even further, others argue that there is no need for an “EU home” as shelter is already provided by NATO and the United States. Under this view, Europeans should work towards keeping their room tidy and occasionally make breakfast even though the rental costs are rising, some roommates are playing their music too loud and the holder of the property deeds may want to relocate. The incoming U.S. administration may solidify this view and the implication is that now is the time to drop any aspiration for EU strategic autonomy. This is a naïve view, of course, as the status quo that prevailed in transatlantic relations after the Cold War is over. Even though the rhetoric will change, and relations will be less erratic, Europeans will need to do more together (and alone) if necessary in security and defence. The home owner might not be kicking Europeans out of the house, but they will be expected to raise their rental payments and contribute to some home DIY.

The term “strategic autonomy” is not going anywhere any time soon, not least because the EU as a set of institutions intuitively knows what needs to be done. Ultimately, the goal is developing one’s own capabilities, spending more on defence and being able to act is a core component of any future transatlantic covenant. Strengthening EU security and defence is of benefit to NATO and the U.S. – it does not mean decoupling, but rather that the EU has to work better alone when required, especially in its neighbourhood.

And ongoing crises in the Sahel and Eastern Mediterranean should make the EU think it will increasingly need to act alone, especially with less U.S. engagement in Africa and the Middle East. This is a healthy, albeit challenging, coming of age. Those that claim that the EU should focus less on the terminology and instead concentrate on capability development and operational robustness are correct. In any case, despite the “rhetoric wars” that normally take place on social media, the EU is already working towards tangible changes to its security and defence policy.

European sovereignty: A need to do more for European citizens

Yet, as is becoming clearer, it is important not to restrict the discussion about strategic autonomy to security and defence. Indeed, the pandemic has shown the EU that it needs a holistic approach to international politics that draws on its soft power too. This is where the idea of “European sovereignty” comes in – it is a catch all term that symbolises the need for the Union to protect its citizens in and through domains such as health, technology, raw materials, space, investments, digitalisation, climate, and so on.

“Sovereignty” is a different and more encompassing word than “autonomy” though. Strategic autonomy is about acting for one’s interests and values, whereas sovereignty is about the essential social contract between political authority and citizens. So, when we speak of “European sovereignty” we are talking about a need to ensure that technology functions in line with the EU’s values, that citizens’ data is not abused, that governments and institutions can govern in a digitalised world and that Europe can lead the transition to a sustainable and carbon neutral economy. We simply do not know how the pandemic will evolve, and it may very well aggravate economic and security tensions across the world. It is already starting to do so. The pandemic may have tested European solidarity but it has also put into sharp focus the need to do more for European citizens across the board. The recent U.S. election has certainly given rise to a sense of euphoria in some quarters, and working with the U.S. in areas such as climate change, trade and global health is a no-brainer. Yet, there is a risk that this will breed complacency – some in Europe think they understand the U.S. again, while ignoring the fact that the American electorate is still bitterly divided. The EU should not be dependent on what happens in U.S. elections every four years, and, in any case, Europe has its own challenges with regard to rule of law, the resilience of the eurozone and chaos in its neighbourhood. In this sense, the Union needs to put in place the “shock absorbers” required for any bumps that may appear further down the road.


Dr Daniel Fiott is Security and Defence Editor at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). He writes here in a personal capacity and his views do not necessarily reflect those of the EUISS or the European Union.

Authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of The Azure Forum.