PARIS — Russia’s war on Ukraine has given new momentum to Emmanuel Macron’s push to make the EU more autonomous. But the Continent’s leaders still need to thrash out what that means in practice.
The French president, who welcomes fellow EU leaders to Versailles on Thursday for a summit overshadowed by the war, has long argued the EU needs to become less reliant on others — when it comes to everything from its own security to the supply of semiconductors.
For Macron’s government, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and its repercussions have dramatically illustrated its point — showing the danger of a Europe unable to defend itself militarily, heavily reliant on Russian energy and too susceptible to external economic shocks.
The war should push the EU “to reduce our interdependence with the outside world, to create not an autocracy but a form of European independence,” Clément Beaune, France’s EU minister, said this week. “If this is the result of this crisis, it will be a success for Europe.”
Some EU members — particularly economic liberals and countries with strong transatlantic ties — have always been resistant to Macron’s buzzword of “strategic autonomy,” fearing that it is code for dirigisme, protectionism and a ploy to get Europe to “buy French.”
And when it comes to the war’s impact on defense policy, a number of senior European officials are drawing a quite different lesson from Macron — namely that the U.S. is vital to the protection of Europe and that NATO is now more relevant than it has been for decades.
But even former skeptics are now embracing Macron’s overall agenda, at least up to a point.
“We have to enhance our open strategic autonomy, something France has been urging for a long time,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Wednesday at an event in Paris.
Asked by POLITICO whether the Netherlands and other countries such as the Nordics are shifting position on the concept, Rutte replied: “Yes, we are.”
However, Rutte was also quick to stress that the European economy should stay open. And his use of the phrase “open strategic autonomy” has become code of its own, used by those who want a more balanced approach.
“Everybody agrees that we have to take a critical look at our dependency on certain countries, and Ukraine has made that even more clear,” said a diplomat from a more economically liberal EU member. “But the French interpretation is a more autarkic approach, which is building new walls.”
In rhetorical terms, however, the political center of gravity is already shifting in Macron’s direction. In Versailles, EU leaders are expected to approve a declaration that reads like a French wish list.
In the draft text, seen by POLITICO, EU leaders commit to increasing defense spending, phasing out dependency on Russian fossil fuels and investing to reduce strategic dependencies on foreign goods.
These are the very same priorities that Macron outlined in an address to the French nation last week as he set out his vision for transforming the EU into a puissance — a genuine power.
Pascal Lamy, the French former World Trade Organization chief and ex-European commissioner, said crises such as the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine have accelerated Europe’s path toward that goal, which has been a long-standing French aim.
“The idea that the construction of Europe is a dream of power for France does not date from yesterday, it has always existed,” Lamy told POLITICO.
On defense policy, the shock of Russia’s attack on Ukraine has had an immediate effect, most strikingly in Germany, which abandoned decades of reticence to commit to a huge boost in military spending.
In the draft Versailles declaration, EU leaders agree collectively to “resolutely bolster our investment” in defense capabilities and “substantially increase” defense spending.
But how that money will be spent remains to be hammered out. Advocates of the EU developing its own defense capabilities argue that this would also strengthen NATO. But skeptics fear EU money could be wasted on projects that don’t fit with NATO’s priorities.
While supporting the increase in European defense spending, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also delivered a blunt message in recent days about the limits of the Continent’s ambitions: “The EU cannot defend Europe,” he declared.
The idea of strategic autonomy has long been associated with defense. But it is also now at the forefront of discussions across a wide range of EU policy areas, particularly energy.
At their summit, EU leaders will also agree on cutting ties to Russian fossil fuels by 2030. And the European Commission this week doubled down on a plan to “reach independence from Russian gas.”
That drive to achieve greater “energy sovereignty” by moving rapidly away from fossil fuels fits with the priorities of the German government that took office late last year, with the Greens in a prominent role.
“The more we rely on our own energy sources and the more these energy sources are not dependent on imports, the more sovereign we will be in our foreign policy,” said German Climate and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, a senior Green. “This is what we mean when we say that renewable energies give us more freedom or foreign policy freedom.”
Talk of autonomy is also on the increase among agriculture policymakers. French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie went as far as calling for “food sovereignty” at a meeting of EU farm ministers last week, as Moscow’s war has exposed just how much the EU relies on imports of fertilizers from Russia and Belarus and crops like maize and soy from Ukraine.
At Versailles, leaders are set to agree to “improve our food security by reducing our dependencies on imported agricultural products and inputs” and also to boost investments to make the bloc more independent in key sectors such as raw materials, semiconductors and medicines.
On the technology front, the threat of Russian cyberattacks has prompted renewed calls to shore up the EU’s digital security and resilience, including by boosting EU businesses in the sector and taking political control of some critical parts of the tech supply chain.
EU ministers responsible for cybersecurity called this week for the bloc to “increase EU funds to promote the emergence of trusted cybersecurity service providers,” adding that “encouraging the development of such EU providers should be a priority of the EU industrial policy in the cybersecurity field,” according to a draft statement obtained by POLITICO.
The French strategic autonomy push is moving so fast that more economically liberal countries are having trouble finding the brakes.
They argue the way to make the EU more resilient is to build more networks with other like-minded countries, rather than for the bloc to turn in on itself.
That’s an approach echoed by the European Commission’s trade and economic policy chief, Valdis Dombrovskis. “The more diversified, the more resilient EU trade flows will be,” he told POLITICO earlier this week. “That’s why I’m insisting on this point of open strategic autonomy to diversify the supply chains who need to be open.”
How far Europe will follow the French playbook is yet to be determined. In some sectors, such as trade and agriculture, the fight has yet to be fought, especially as the more liberally minded Czechs and Swedes will take over the helm of the Council of the EU after the French.
But Paris feels it has the wind in its sails. As France’s trade minister, Franck Riester, said this week: “Strategic autonomy has ceased being taboo.”
Laurens Cerulus, David M. Herszenhorn, Laura Kayali, Eddy Wax and Zia Weise contributed reporting.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network