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January 06, 2022

The Pathway to a Sovereign Europe

In an increasingly competitive world the concept of European sovereignty has gained in currency. But it’s important to understand exactly what that means.

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French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech to set out plans for reforming the European Union at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, September 26, 2017.
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More than four years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech entitled “Initiative for Europe” to students at the Sorbonne in Paris. While perceived as an audacious speech at the time that introduced the notion of “European sovereignty,” the concept has since been taken up by others in Europe. In 2020, European Council President Charles Michel called the achievement of European sovereignty as the task of our generation. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, used her 2021 State of the Union address to call for Europe’s technological sovereignty. In the same year, the German, Estonian, Finnish, and Danish governments called for Europe to invest in its digital sovereignty. Finally, the recently agreed government coalition treaty in Germany called for more strategic sovereignty for the European Union.

In many ways, the notion of European strategic sovereignty can be intuitively understood in light of the recent crises that have struck the EU. For example, the pandemic and ensuing health crisis exposed Europe’s shortfalls in medical equipment, but it also showed how Europe could develop a vaccine based on the ingenuity and innovation of its scientific base. Likewise, Europe’s deteriorating security environment and international challenges such as the climate crisis and digital transition have forced the EU to reflect on how best to secure its interests and values. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the idea of European sovereignty has emerged as a concept to try and understand and respond to a more competitive age. However, it is important to get to grips with the actual meaning of the term European sovereignty and focus on its implications.

European Sovereignty: a Contested Idea

Even without affixing the word “European” to the concept, sovereignty conjures up a range of thoughts and emotions. Indeed, the concept is a key feature of debates in political science and international relations. We know that sovereignty is a contested term. For some, it has negative connotations because it over-emphasizes the state and has been linked with some of Europe’s darkest historical moments. For others, the term is a positive symbol of political freedom recovered after decades of living under colonial rule.

When projected to the European level, the idea of sovereignty can imply a strategy of state-building designed to build a federal Europe. The implication is that a more federal Europe will come at the expense of national sovereignty. Of course, even though EU institutions can claim authority in areas such as energy security, borders, trade, and more, the reality is that sovereign power at the EU level is diffuse. The EU has no sovereign head in the sense implied by traditional conceptualizations of the term—there is no European leviathan.

Another reason why the notion of European sovereignty is viewed with suspicion in some quarters is that it is perceived to be linked with one country. The fact that the concept of European sovereignty has been so tightly linked to President Macron has served, for the concept’s detractors, as a way to dismiss the idea as nothing more than a French whim. As we have seen, however, other European governments have also sought to breathe life into the term. The idea of European sovereignty is now shared among many governments and it cannot realistically be claimed by any single leader or European country.

Additionally, there are suspicions that the idea of European sovereignty has been advanced to mask an attempt to transform the EU into a more autarkic economy. This is the idea that more European sovereignty will mean that Europe pulls up the drawbridge to the world. This is perhaps an expected over-simplification of the steps taken by the EU to lower potentially harmful technological and economic dependencies. Indeed, the dichotomy between “protectionism” and “openness” is largely a caricature. There is no perfect example of a completely open or closed economy. The United States, which is usually held up as the archetypal free economy, is, in many strategic sectors, quite closed to outside investment and trade. The EU is increasingly aware of the fact that strategic competitors may seek to exploit the relative openness of the European single market.

Understanding European Sovereignty

For all of these fears, “European sovereignty” should not be dismissed so easily. In fact, it is interesting to note that in some quarters the notion of sovereignty is preferred to the idea of strategic autonomy—another contested term. We should be clear, however, that the concept of European sovereignty includes but is distinct from strategic autonomy.

The idea of European sovereignty is more recent than strategic autonomy. The notion of strategic autonomy applies to having the means and capacities to act as independently as possible in international affairs. In security and defense, it often implies a need for defense capabilities and investment in Europe’s defense industry. Where technology is concerned, investments in semiconductors or batteries are designed to ensure that the European economy can continue to function and innovate. When it comes to space, the European Union already benefits from the independence achieved from Galileo and Copernicus and this must be maintained. Finally, and more broadly, the EU’s single market as well as its currency and trade policy confer on the bloc and its member states a high degree of regulatory power, which ensures that the EU is better placed to secure its economic and normative interests and values.

European sovereignty includes these features but goes further to touch upon questions of fundamental freedoms and security. Whereas strategic autonomy is about political action, European sovereignty relates to political authority. In essence, calls for greater European sovereignty point to a need to assert democratic control over political forces and challenges that cannot be effectively dealt with by individual governments alone. Fears about a loss of political authority certainly underly President Macron’s Sorbonne speech, with questions about whether Europe can manage its own security or manage digital and climate transitions being of paramount importance.

Sovereignty has always been a reflection about who should hold political authority. This is certainly not an alien concept to Europe given the continent’s past contestations over religious, monarchical, and popular authority. Indeed, the EU is itself a response to managing political authority between people, states, and institutions. Today, there is a sense in which the ability of democracies to control geopolitical and technological shifts requires a broader and more Europe-wide approach to sovereignty. Regardless of size or wealth, individual European governments are unable to deal with climate change and the transition to a low carbon society, and they are unable to fully manage technologies that threaten to upend human agency and democratic control over society.

In particular, artificial intelligence challenges the idea that humans should always form part of decision-making processes. The complex algorithms that guide automated systems are beyond the understanding of most people and governments. Data has become a currency in its own right and how we manage information raises serious questions about privacy and fundamental freedoms. Technology can be used to manipulate information, which erodes one of the fundamental principles of democratic societies. Of course, technological evolution has always raised political concerns but what is different today is that global tech firms have far more power in controlling free speech and the sentiments of society. For example, the rise of deep fake videos and cryptocurrencies or decisions about who can or cannot use social media platforms strike at the heart of democratic societies.

A Program for European Sovereignty

As with most concepts, the meaning of European sovereignty is often not readily understood by citizens without concrete political action. Almost all policy domains require action at the EU level to address strategic shortfalls and dependencies. Indeed, during the Sorbonne speech, President Macron stated that European sovereignty should be built in the areas of security, borders and migration, foreign policy, the ecological transition, digital technology, and monetary and economic power.

How should Europe develop its sovereignty in each of these domains? First, one of the threads that runs through each of these domains is investment. The reality is that no ambitious pursuit of more European sovereignty can occur without sustained and sizeable levels of financial investment. Such investment needs to occur at the national and European levels and be directed at health and environmental science, transportation, digital technologies, and security and defense. Whatever one reads into the Next Generation EU recovery plan, there can be no doubt that it has broken the taboo about investing multiple billions into economic recovery. The task for the next few years is to ensure that the recovery plan delivers, but, more than this, EU governments already need to be thinking about the next EU multi-annual financial package that will begin in 2028—negotiations about the size and allocations of this package will already begin over the next few years.

Second, European sovereignty means lowering harmful dependencies. This can be defined as those supplies that Europeans would need in times of crisis: for example, such as medical equipment during health shocks. It can also mean ensuring that technological systems are free from industrial or political interference, as the case of 5G networks implies. There are also dependencies in areas such as energy, cyber, climate, and pharmaceuticals that need to be addressed if European citizens are to be safeguarded from supply strains and manipulation. The upside to this is ensuring that European firms remain competitive and have access to critical supplies and resources. This, in turn, presupposes an investment by the EU and its member states in supply diversification strategies, technology investments, and nurturing critical skills and know-how. This is why the EU has started to invest in key strategic technology domains such as AI, quantum computing, hydrogen batteries, semiconductors, and more.

Third, European sovereignty must include and address security and defense. The Indo-Pacific has fast become an area of economic opportunity and security concerns. The withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised questions about intervention and the role of the military in dealing with intractable political crises. Closer to home, instability in the Mediterranean region persists and the instrumentalization of irregular migration at the EU’s borders will need comprehensive strategies. The specter of conflict is close to Europe and strategic competitors such as Russia and China are looking for ways to sow disunity in the EU. It is an escapable fact that many of these security challenges cannot be dealt with fine words or intentions only. Financial investment in defense is vital.

However, and finally, investments in each of these areas cannot be effective without a change of mindset in the way the EU looks at the world. More than ever, what is needed is a far greater emphasis on a collective ability to anticipate crises and a common understanding of the challenges the EU faces. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that life-changing crises can occur almost overnight. The EU needs to drastically improve its decision-making frameworks in order to respond to crises. Governments should be on the same page when it comes to understanding the origins of a crisis and knowing what EU crisis response tools exist (and how they function). Strategic foresight is important, but it is not enough. What is required is a more coherent plan for how the European Union will act in potentially grave situations.

The Future of an Idea

It is unlikely that the notion of European sovereignty will disappear anytime soon. To be sure, new concepts may emerge that may appear less contestedfor example, “European power” is an obvious contender. Either way, the labels cannot mask the fact that the European Union is faced with profound questions about how it will secure its own interests and values in a world that appears increasingly hostile to them. Conceptual debates are important in democracies because they help us better understand and articulate new ideas and the language used to express them. “Sovereignty,” “autonomy,” and “power” will remain contested ideas but this is a healthy part of living in democratic societies.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which profound political questions can be buried under the weight of conceptual debates. In this sense, it is a risk to view European sovereignty as an end in itself. European sovereignty cannot be willed into existence through speeches. It needs concrete projects and a shift in mindset. Accordingly, it is more constructive to think about the specific dependencies the EU wants to systematically reduce and how to ensure that citizens can have a meaningful sense of democratic control over the profound political challenges facing and shaping Europe.

Paradoxically, not having a centralized source of sovereign power in Europe may be a certain kind of strength. Indeed, when compared to the speed of political decision-making in the United States, China, or Russia the EU may seem like a marathon runner that has turned up to run a 100-meter race. However, shared sovereignty in the European Union is an important asset because it brings together multiple levels of society. Top-down political responses to questions about political authority and technological evolution may not always succeed in capturing the needs and desires of society. Accordingly, if European sovereignty is to mean anything over the next few years it must first re-energize the social contract that exists between governments, institutions, and people in Europe today.

Daniel Fiott is Security and Defense Editor at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). His views do not necessarily reflect those of the EUISS or the European Union.