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Foreign Policy

Strategic Autonomy in Europe

Jun 25, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
  • Dong Yifan

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The U.S. president chose Europe for his first trip abroad. He not only attended three important events — the G-7 Summit, NATO Summit and U.S.-EU Summit — but also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, after extensive contacts with European allies. This shows Biden attaches much greater importance to Europe than his predecessor. In particular, the U.S.-EU Summit has been on hold since Barack Obama’s second term, and the activation of this mechanism and its linkage with NATO and the G7 indicates that the Biden administration is relying more on the EU, at least in terms of diplomatic interaction and head of state communication.

Based on developments at several summits, transatlantic relations in the Biden era have improved considerably — from the atmosphere to the agenda — compared with the Trump era, and there is a clear trend for the EU to proactively seek policy coordination with the U.S. on important items. In addition, the U.S. has actively tried to woo Europe in certain areas to accommodate its concerns, and U.S.-Europe strategic coordination is beginning to bear fruit.

Biden’s reliance on the EU is not about the transatlantic relationship, per se, but rather focuses on the intense ongoing strategic competition between China and the U.S. He hopes to avoid the dilemma of going it alone.

In view of the EU’s huge market, its strength in political, economic and scientific fields and its influence on international rules and multilateralism, the U.S. is trying to reinvigorate the transatlantic relationship to pull Europe into the camp of great power competition and ensure that it works in parallel with the U.S. to counter China in the geopolitical, ideological, economic, trade, scientific and technological fields.

From the content of the relevant communiques, one can see the emergence of the first signs of a joint U.S.-European effort against China, and some initiatives are on the table. For example, the G7 communique mentions Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and even the Taiwan Strait, and proposes to build “alternatives” to China in the areas of supply chains, infrastructure and economic and trade rules. The NATO Summit communique lists China as a “systemic challenge” and suggests influencing Asia-Pacific security affairs through partnerships. The U.S.-EU Summit communique repeats some of the themes in the G7 document. Although the wording is relatively weak, creating U.S.-EU joint committees on transatlantic trade, economics, science and technology to strengthen policy coordination has become  the consensus on the two sides.

In addition, to further stabilize transatlantic relations and woo Europe against China, the U.S. took the initiative to make concessions to the EU in some previously contentious areas, such as relaxing sanctions on European companies involved in the Nord Stream II gas pipeline project before Biden’s visit to Europe, reaching a consensus on the suspension of tariff retaliation measures related to the subsidy dispute between Boeing and Airbus on the eve of the U.S.-EU summit and proposing to reach a thoroughgoing consensus on international rules for public subsidies.

However, Europe does not want to be pulled directly into the anti-China camp by the U.S. For the so-called China challenge, Europe prefers to clarify first what areas of challenge exist and what these challenges mean, and then design a policy toward China that is different from the U.S.

In the three summits, the U.S.-EU consensus was not entirely dominated by the U.S. Rather, it integrated policy positions from both sides. For example, in the U.S.-EU Summit communique, the phrase “cooperation, competition and systemic rivalry” is very similar to the strategic characterization of China embodied in a report last year from Fudan University titled China Policies of the EU and Its Members 2019.

Even though Sino-European relations have clearly seen ups and downs and difficulties lately, leading European countries have remained unshaken in their independent policy toward China. French President Emmanuel Macron said before the G7 Summit that Europe should firmly “remain independent in its strategy toward China” rather than “automatically siding with the United States” and following its lead or watching a “new cold war” develop. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and other European leaders are also reluctant to follow the U.S. in an outright confrontation with China.

Biden’s visit to Europe will not diminish the tense trend of the China-U.S. game, and in this context the EU can feel the preciousness of strategic autonomy. The strategic autonomy emphasized by the EU is to act in accordance with its own interests when dealing with other major powers, instead of blindly following other major powers to avoid being reduced from a geopolitical chess player to a pawn or even a chessboard.

In addition, the EU also emphasizes the need to strengthen its own capacity building in the fields of trade, economy, science, technology, energy and security, and to reduce its dependence on other countries so that dependence will not become a lever for other countries to influence its policy autonomy.

Based on the differences in their respective interests and strategic tendencies, it is difficult to completely eliminate the differences and contradictions between Europe and the United States in areas of common concern, which will also increase the momentum for Europe to seek greater autonomy. In the fight against COVID-19, while both the U.S. and Europe have taken the initiative to donate vaccines to developing countries, the EU is dissatisfied with the U.S. advocacy of “giving up patent rights” at the expense of others. The U.S. has imposed heavy control on the export of vaccines and their upstream products, and failed to change its policy direction of hoarding vaccines on a large scale.

In the technology sector, countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands have supported tighter regulation of multinational digital giants and the creation of a digital tax, while the recent revelations of “Wiretap gate” in Denmark have heightened European concerns about the security of the free flow of data between the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. has severely criticized these practices, accusing the EU of advancing an anti-American technology policy, and it has attempted to dismantle the digital tax proposal with a global minimum corporate tax rate initiative.

In the field of security, the Biden administration has increased the importance of NATO and strengthened the security ties between the U.S. and Europe. However, European countries are still not interested in meeting the military spending target, while the U.S. regards the lack of European military equipment and defense capabilities as NATO loopholes, and differences and frictions between the U.S. and Europe on military spending are likely to continue. In addition, some NATO members are also reluctant to prematurely emphasize the Chinese challenge but hope to fully assess the impact of China on NATO before making further plans.

In the economic and trade field, the U.S. is trying to ease Europe’s Trump anxiety, but the EU’s doubts about whether the U.S. can respect its interests can hardly be significantly alleviated. European Trade Commissioner-designate Valdis Dombrovskis urged the U.S. to “implement its commitments” and push for a solution to the steel and aluminum tariff issue and seek a comprehensive and lasting solution to the extensive trade dispute between Europe and the U.S.

In the face of Biden’s warmth, Europe — which has experienced Trump shock — has become calmer and more pragmatic. Although Biden emphasized the insignificance of Trumpism in the United States during his visit, Europe is aware that “America first” may return at any time. It has not even been completely removed from U.S. policy toward Europe at the moment. In view of this, Europe will start by increasing its own strength and exploring a path that can stabilize transatlantic relations, seeking strategic autonomy in the context of competition between China and the United States, rather than accepting Biden’s general narrative of “democracy against autocracy” wholesale. Europe wants to avoid being dragged by the United States into a costly new cold war that’s driven by strategic autonomy.

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