The European Union between strategic autonomy and technological sovereignty: impasses and opportunities

Recherches & Documents n°10/2021
Jean-Pierre Darnis, April 16, 2021

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The Covid-19 crisis has produced an inflation of speeches on the need for Europe to increase control over its production, its sovereignty but also to increase its weight and autonomy in relation to the great world powers (China and the United States) in order to assert its own position. We can see an increase in the number of declarations by EU officials in this direction, from representatives of Member State governments to European institutionsAnne de Guigné, “Le Maire et Breton veulent favoriser l’autonomie européenne”, Le Figaro, 16 February 2021.. Remarkably, as soon as she was appointed in 2019, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced her vision of a "geopolitical" Commission, thus expressing the project of reinforcing the role and legitimacy of the Union as a global actorDerek Perrotte, Gabriel Gresillon, “Von der Leyen veut redonner à l’Europe les moyens de sa puissance”, Les Echos, 10 September 2019..

The multiplication of this type of reference underlining a desire for affirmation of the European Union stems from an awareness influenced by several factors. The question of sovereignty has been a recurring theme for several years, and the Union must formulate responses to those who want to “take back control”, which often rhymes with the desire to renationalize Member States’ policies.

The Trump presidency confirmed the many divergences between Europe and the United States on a series of key issues, and raised questions about the strength of the transatlantic link. The issue of data sovereignty and control in the context of transatlantic trade has produced a series of disputes, both with regard to corporate activity and the protection of individual rights. These differences do not call into question the military alliance, but rather outline a rivalry at another, extremely competitive level, that of mastery of information technologies, which requires radical adaptation on the part of democracies, as it draws complex triangulations where tech giants are inserted alongside statesJean-Dominique Merchet, interview with Pascal Boniface, “Les Gafam représentent une menace pour la pérennité des Etats”, L’Opinion, 15 February 2021..

In addition, the technological competition between the United States and China places Europe in a position of having to make choices, which sometimes leads to a plea for greater autonomy, over and above the strength of the transatlantic relationshipSee for example Jean-Pierre Chevènement, “L’Europe et le piège de la bipolarité”, in La Chine dans le monde, actes du colloque du 17 novembre 2020, Fondation Res Publica, February 2021, pp. 51-53..

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Covid crisis provoked a disruption in supply chains and highlighted Europe’s dependence on China for certain supplies. This factor, combined with the image of a “Chinese virus”, first pointed to trade relations with China as a weak spot that should lead to repatriation of certain types of production to EuropeOlivier Le Bussy, “Le Covid-19 oblige l’Europe à repenser son rapport au monde”, La Libre Belgique, 30 July 2020.. More recently, we have seen the emergence of a desire for European autonomy in the field of vaccines, while the continuity of supplies between the Union and third country suppliers such as the United Kingdom or the United States could be called into question by national priorities“L’Instrument d’urgence du Marché unique devrait être un peu plus détaillé en avril, annonce Thierry Breton”, Bulletin Quotidien Europe, 26 February 2021..

The climate of crisis reinforces the idea of the need for European independence both to assert its own global projection and to strengthen resilience, i.e. to be less dependent on other world powers.

It is in this context that we have seen the emergence of two concepts that are becoming politically performative at the European level: technological sovereignty and strategic autonomy. The ins and outs of these proposals need to be analyzed in order to define perspectives that will enable the Union to emerge from the entropy linked to the multiplication of declarations and to reach a forward-looking vision that can bring together a lasting consensus.



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