Europe faces challenging global context

Published : 12 Nov 2019 05:48 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 07:27 PM

The emer­ging com­plexity with regard to Brexit and the conflict in opinions within Britain have all created concern not only within the United Kingdom but also within the European Union. This paradigm of anxiety has persuaded EU analysts to re-visit the evolving international factors that could affect strategic autonomy within their future matrix.

Four points are now receiving special attention.

The first relates to equipping Europe with the necessary acceptable tools towards governing interdependence and mitigating confrontation. This is being considered so that ways can be identified that can meet the priorities of its citizens and therefore strengthen the legitimacy of the European Union (EU).

The second refers to the adopting not only of a non-adversarial posture to cope with power politics but also in the taking of a strong stance in defence of Europe while not endorsing a zero-sum reading of global affairs.

The third element receiving attention is how to not only make the EU a global shaping power by leveraging its rulemaking power but also how to better connect internal policies and assets to external instruments and objectives.

The fourth factor deals with not only how to frame the debate about Europe’s strategic autonomy in much broader terms than just security and defence but also how to include in this context also the economic and technological dimensions, too.

The consideration of the above elements about Europe’s strategic autonomy reflects the uncertainty surrounding the continued prospects for European integration and the EU’s future role in the world from the perspective of current developments. This includes changes such as- the surge of multi-domain competition on the international stage, the unilateral policies of the Trump administration in the US, the rise of China as a more assertive shaping power and Russia’s antagonistic posture related to certain aspects. All these aspects are underlining the need for the EU to re-visit the political salience of Europe’s strategic autonomy. The pressing question rising within the equation is not only defining Europe’s place in a hardening global context but also its ability to foster peace and safeguard security within and beyond its borders.

Over the last three years, as Europe’s strategic environment has deteriorated, leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and the EU Commission President and President of the European Council have in different ways tried to broaden the scope of the debate pertaining to the question of Europe’s autonomy, self-reliance and sovereignty. 

The debate on strategic autonomy has also exposed differences within the EU on the meaning and relevance of the concept, the scope of its application and its implications.

Some geo-strategists have observed that strategic autonomy has created a requirement for Europeans to shoulder more responsibility for their own security and collaborate better with allies and partners. On the other hand some have noted that strategic autonomy in security and defence might be potentially detrimental to the existing transatlantic bonds in the areas of economy and technology.

This controversy has also led to identification of serious gaps and shortcomings in the EU institutional frameworks, capabilities and key technologies in a more competitive world. It is believed that these drawbacks are hampering the pursuit of strategic autonomy whether it is in security and defence, technological leadership or economic statecraft.

Nevertheless, one point is generally been agreed upon. There is consensus that the meaning of strategic autonomy assumes a special importance in a world that is not only more contested but also more connected. Consequently, given the contemporary context, effective action depends not only on self-reliance when needed, but also on the ability to join forces with others, whenever possible.

Since 2016 the international environment and the perception of threats and opportunities therein have changed significantly. It is accordingly agreed by academics that Europe must respond to the threats and challenges it faces – but a truly strategic approach to them requires preparing to counter and mitigate the drift towards a zero-sum world.

It must be remembered that a variety of countervailing forces is shaping the international system. The cumulative impact of these developments is that competition in the system is growing, making it more unstable and vulnerable to disruptions. The main responsibility in this regard lies in the ongoing technological revolution. Their principal manifestation is the increasingly antagonistic relationship between two superpowers preoccupied with redefining their respective roles – US and China. The world has been carefully following the evolving circumstances between these two countries and its effect on trade and investment.

At the same time there is the role being played by non-state actors who are trying to revamp spheres of influence. Huge digital conglomerates are expanding their reach into all spheres of life, and large state-owned companies, such as in China or Russia, are becoming vectors of mercantilist policies. The technological revolution is reshaping industries, politics, globalization and strategic affairs. However, one thing is generally agreed upon- interdependence can be leveraged to gain an advantage over rivals while connectivity can become a vector of political 


In this context one also needs to mention that the current standoff between the US and China has been an example of rivalry among great powers in a connected world. It is also an example of competition and cooperation. One has to also accept that increasing competition on the global stage will continue to take place across many levels simultaneously. Major Powers are unlikely to use force against each other but they will definitely in the pursuit of national interest, compete across multiple domains including trade, finance, norms and ideas, (dis)information and cyberspace, and the military. In this regard the technological revolution can be a powerful multiplier of both competition and cooperation.

Another factor also needs to be taken into consideration. The last few years have seen the rise of nationalist forces and leaders in all global regions, fuelling a revival of identity politics. These forces have played the nationalist card to claim to defend their national community against the disruptions brought by globalization, allegedly masterminded by liberal elements. Nationalism is often mobilized by them to provide legitimacy to leaders and rulers, portrayed as standing for national greatness and values against external threats. However, this nationalist surge is turning out to be a major factor in generating a crisis within the sphere of multilateralism, as strongmen generally tend to favor power politics or one-on-one transactions over the constraints of rules-based 


The EU will have to continue playing a central role in the development of the international order through its active engagement. The size of the EU implies that when Europeans take joint positions, considerable agenda-setting and rule making power is generated. This has been reflected in its trade and climate negotiations. The EU’s influence has also been identified during discussion that has taken place in the paradigm of competition policy with global corporate juggernauts.

Despite all the complexities pertaining to Brexit, the EU can make a difference on major geopolitical issues- in striking a compromise with regard to the Iran nuclear deal (the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) or in responding to Russia’s actions related to Ukraine. The EU must understand that it can play a central role in the development of international order. It can exert considerable shaping power on the global stage as long as it acts strategically by setting shared goals and equipping itself with the means to achieve them. In other words, strategic autonomy within the EU can become a means towards Europe’s contribution to the resilience, reform and effectiveness of the multilateral order.

European Union can also support multilateralism in many ways despite severe pressure on this process by populist dictatorial regimes. The EU is a crucial partner to bodies such as the UN and the African Union. The EU could also further mobilize its links with regional bodies to create common ground on new issues of global governance, such as the regulation of new technologies. The EU can and should also make a strong contribution to the reform of international institutions while engaging with key partners. On trade matters, the EU has also been presenting since 2018 its own approach to the reform of the World Trade Organiza

tion (WTO), particularly areas related to the functioning of the WTO’s Appellate Body.

The world recognizes EU’s role and constructive engagement in using multilateralism to bring about vast benefits not only Europe and the US but to all global regions and powers more widely. Now, at this juncture, multilateral cooperation appears to be delivering less. The classical example in this regard is the sorry plight of the Rohingyas driven out of Myanmar through ethnic cleansing and now unable to return to their Rakhine State in Myanmar. Action in such matters should be taken at two levels: addressing the gaps and gridlocks, if need be on a mini-lateral level to begin with; and then ensuring that globalization delivers similar benefits for all citizens. This will facilitate global integration.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information 

and good governance