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In many places, the Covid-19 pandemic is moving into the third to wave and mutations like B 1.1.7. are creating new, even harder challenges. The scale of its disruptive force is unprecedented and its scope unknown. Reacting to the derailment of supply and value chains, the US, China and the EU are looking to increase their autonomy. But their approach differs.

The Chinese objectives to drastically reduce interdependence have been made clear at the meeting of the latest People’s Congress. The country will contribute to international issues where it suits its internal agenda – for example on climate policy – and strive for complete technological independence of its own industry and a standard-setting position in fields like the production of semiconductors, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the new American administration seems to prioritise internal problems, notwithstanding President Biden’s commitment to normalise international relations. Against the backdrop of an increasingly fractured global system, the EU has developed the concept of “open strategic autonomy”. One could summarise it in simple terms like: “as independent as necessary and as open as possible”. But alas, things are more complicated.

In its Communication of 27 May 2020, the European Commission formulated the ambition of open strategic autonomy as follows:

This will mean shaping the new system of global economic governance and developing mutually beneficial bilateral relations, while protecting ourselves from unfair and abusive practices. […] This will also help us diversify and solidify global supply chains to protect us from future crisis and will help strengthen the international role of the euro. […] In this spirit, the EU will undertake a Trade Policy Review to ensure the continuous flow of goods and services worldwide and to reform the World Trade Organisation. 

European Commission,   20 May 2020

On the more assertive side, the picture looks different. The creation of a new system of global economic governance is a tall order, and to achieve a new level in mutually beneficial relations will take time, as illustrated by cumbersome process to achieve a new relationship with the UK. The same can be said about the – necessary – reform of the WTO, which will be more complicated than an internal Trade Policy Review.

Taking a closer look one could say that the EU faces the reality of being dependent in a number of fields, and a choice of autonomy in some others. Levelling with the US and China on some forms of high technology would be possible, but it will take long-term commitments and enormous investments. Take energy.  Does anyone remember the ITER project? After 10 years of preparation, the nuclear fusion reactor in Cadarache in France is expected to start first test operations in about four years from now. The critical part of the concept of open strategic autonomy is the choice of partners for areas of dependency, like security and software. There can be little doubt. The partner of choice for strategic dependency is the US, as the basis for such a relationship lies in a shared set of values and a sufficiently large overlap of interests. 

There is plenty of both; upholding a functioning global system of relations, ensuring institutions like the UN and the WHO are effective, and the support for democracy, human rights and open markets. It would be good to explore, how a concept of joint strategic autonomy can be formulated, based on mutually beneficial dependencies.

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