The word “geopolitics” conjures up images of a world whose time has passed, of generals and diplomats sliding chess-like pieces across maps. That is not to say that power relations have disappeared. The great powers, Europe included, are vying for leverage in more areas than ever. But it cannot be a top-down project. Any attempt at a geopolitical vision for Europe needs to start with social justice and democracy.

The European institutions have committed themselves to a concept known as “open strategic autonomy”. Broadly defined, this refers to the European Union’s ability to act using its own resources and reduce its dependencies on other parts of the world. It is one of the key elements promoted by the European institutions as part of Europe’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. In a changing global context, achieving “open strategic autonomy” is the European Commission’s strategy for Europe to become a key global actor.

The pandemic has extended the understanding of geopolitics to include new areas such as technology and health. However, this understanding has still not stretched far enough. Any geopolitical vision for the European Union ultimately rests on European societies. To be effective, open strategic autonomy should go beyond conventional geopolitical considerations to incorporate socioeconomic dimensions as well as environmental realities. Policies determined at the highest levels can affect people’s lives very tangibly and very rapidly. A geopolitical Europe that overlooks the social dimension risks generating resentment and may lead to a public backlash.

The backdrop to strategy autonomy

For a long time, “strategic autonomy” was mainly used in military and foreign policy contexts to refer to the ability of a state to act alone in matters of national security and strategic importance. Today, global geopolitics are increasingly complex. Issues such as climate policies intersect with other areas in a continuously evolving geoeconomic context characterised by competition between the two leading global actors, the United States and China. Over time, the concept of strategic autonomy was thus enlarged to include areas such as technological development and economic interests.

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Then came Covid-19. This was not only a severe public health crisis; the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns shook the economic and social fundamentals of societies across the globe. In Europe, the crisis exposed a series of vulnerabilities, revealing the European Union’s dependence on other countries in areas of strategic importance. Disruptions in the production and supply of critical goods such as face masks or inputs such as drug precursors produced in India and China left European health systems lacking in the crisis. The concept of open strategic autonomy has been developed to ensure that Europe is better prepared for future crises. Its primary objective is a Europe that is more resilient in the face of challenges, while the prefix “open” is intended to indicate that the EU remains committed to multilateral relations with like-minded partners.

Social policies in an interconnected world

In today’s context, it is increasingly accepted that different policies are intertwined. Trade policy, for example, is no longer isolated from climate policy; in theory, at least, the two are expected to work together.

The energy transition is a clear example of this interconnection. Faced with climate change and environmental degradation, the green transition requires the transformation of Europe’s energy system. This process will involve disruptive changes in how energy is both produced and consumed. As high-carbon sources of energy are phased out, energy costs will rise. The scarcity of certain resources such as rare earth minerals and carbon taxes will further drive up costs. In the coming decades, energy prices will stabilise and eventually fall with the increased availability of cleaner and cheaper renewable sources. In the meantime, however, energy bills are set to rise and more people could find themselves in energy poverty.

Industrial development, investment in skills, and the creation of decent jobs go hand in hand

In other words, the decarbonisation pathways that a more autonomous and sustainable Europe needs to follow will come with a social cost. Changing dependencies on energy sources will impact energy imports and trade. Without reinforced social protection throughout the green transition, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions could generate public opposition. The yellow vest movement in France was triggered by a rise in fuel prices due to a new carbon tax, adding to an accumulation of existing financial challenges faced by middle and lower-income households. The fear of a similar social reaction seems to be present in the thinking of some policy-makers, who have recognised that society needs to be carried along if there is to be a credible just transition.

Socioeconomic conditions are inseparable from energy policies, which are inseparable from trade relations, which are inseparable from geopolitical dynamics, which are inseparable from the control of critical raw materials and resources. Welcome to a world in which (almost) everything is interconnected.

The strategic side of social policy

Given their many connections across different policy areas, initiatives to enhance Europe’s open strategic autonomy can hardly be separated from their social and economic implications. However, social policy remains an under-discussed aspect of the debate when, in fact, it should be intrinsic to it.

Reducing Europe’s dependence on other parts of the world involves (re-) developing strategic sectors and industries and potentially includes reshoring critical production lines back to Europe. Reinforced investment in critical skills is central to this effort. Investing in people and their know-how is of utmost importance for a Europe wishing to boost innovation and stay competitive during the twin transitions of digitalisation and sustainability, particularly if it aims to become a global leader in strategic industries.

According to forecasts from the European vocational training centre (Cedefop), Europe faces skills shortages in occupations including the digital industries, scientific research, healthcare, and teaching. Examples include the growing demand for sustainable architects in Italy, and the Europe-wide demand for workers with specialised skills driven by the development of the electric car industry. Needless to say, in order to identify and invest in the right skills for future jobs, coordination with education and training systems is key. If the European Union has determined that nanotechnology and the production of semiconductors are essential to its strategic autonomy, then equipping people with the specific skills needed is equally important. Industrial development, investment in skills, and the creation of decent jobs go hand in hand.

Demographic projections suggest that Europe’s population will increase slightly until 2026, after which a decline will set in that will last until 2100 and likely beyond. A combination of longer life expectancies, declining birth rates, and migratory flows indicate a demographic picture characterised by a shrinking workforce. Existing labour shortages are likely to be exacerbated in the coming decades, especially in some critical sectors and particularly for the European regions already suffering from depopulation. According to a study by the EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions (Eurofound), countries such as Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands are facing unmet labour demand in the digital sectors. The pandemic will worsen the overall situation; sectors such as construction are facing particular difficulties. These demographic trends raise questions about Europe’s ability to fill in jobs in critical sectors. Active and healthy ageing policies for the elderly are one way to address these issues. However, raising the pension age, which varies widely across the EU, can quickly become a contentious issue, especially in some countries.

Citizens should be able to have their say on issues that will strongly impact their economic activities as well as their everyday lives. 

In this context, focusing on youth policy is an important step that could have a decisive effect on the prosperity of Europe over the next decades. Reducing the proportion of young people who are neither in education nor employment, and supporting their transition into the labour market, may help avoid the bitter experience of the 2008 financial crisis that scarred the careers of many young people for years afterwards. The European Commission has indicated that it will invest more in young people through a new mobility programme entitled ALMA (Aim, Learn, Master, Achieve) to help young people find work abroad. While promoting youth mobility is a smart idea as the success of the Erasmus programmes shows, the scheme should go beyond proposing temporary work experience abroad. Curbing the particularly high levels of youth unemployment faced by some European countries and regions should be a priority.

Furthermore, younger people are increasingly aware of the climate emergency and wider environmental challenges, urging politicians to push for environmental protection and increase efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The sustainability of Europe’s strategic autonomy in relation to climate politics therefore also depends on the support of the next generation.

A crucial aspect of the social side of strategic autonomy relates to just and fair transitions in the face of climate change and digitalisation. The green transition is a key prerequisite for Europe’s strategic autonomy because it can reduce external dependencies around energy and scarce resources. At the same time, it will have unequal distributional impacts, with adverse employment effects on the economic sectors faced with restructuring. Countries will have different experiences of the twin transitions depending on their existing economic and industrial structures, as well as their relative access to raw materials. Potential job losses require careful management to ensure that transition is a fair process for everyone. Social partners need to be involved to a greater extent, at all levels, to make sure that workers are accompanied and supported during all stages of the transitions. Failure to do so risks deepening inequalities, increasing polarisation, and turning the public against disruptive green policies – and may well undermine strategic autonomy.

To ensure fair and just transitions towards a carbon-neutral economy, additional funds will be needed to support the sectors most heavily dependent on carbon-intensive processes. As part of the Fit for 55 package, the European Commission has proposed a Social Climate Fund on top of existing just transition funds to help citizens finance investments in energy efficiency and cleaner mobility solutions. Whether this will be enough to ensure a just transition remains to be seen.

The way ahead

The European strategic autonomy debate is set to continue in the years ahead. With France taking over the EU presidency in 2022, open strategic autonomy will likely become even more central to the European political discourse. French disappointment at being cut out of the Aukus military pact between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and losing out on a lucrative nuclear submarine contract with Australia as a result, will only reinforce this trend. The Aukus affair has shaken the image of a Europe able to maintain its independence and influence in the face of other geopolitical actors.

While the geopolitical context is constantly evolving, one thing is clear: citizens must be front and centre on the path towards strategic autonomy. All initiatives put forward should include citizen engagement and offer support, for instance with job seeking or in the area of education and training. Expectations should be managed early on, and transparency about the proposed impact of the policies under discussion – including an explanation of the trade-offs – will be essential. Socioeconomic considerations lie at the intersection of geopolitics and climate politics. Making this clear right from the beginning – not ex post – will increase public acceptance of the policies that are needed in order to move forward with Europe’s strategic autonomy. Any attempt at strategic autonomy which lacks an in-built basis for social and democratic legitimacy is bound to fail.

Transformative thinking and participatory policy co-design are examples of how citizens could be directly involved in matters of strategic importance. Despite their limitations, the citizens’ climate assemblies in France and the United Kingdom and the citizens’ panels organised through the Conference on the Future of Europe are a start. Policies are ultimately about people, and it is people that feel their effects. Citizens should therefore be able to have their say on issues that will strongly impact their economic activities as well as their everyday lives. They should receive proper support with the costs and consequences of these decisions. Failing this, strategic autonomy will be met with resentment and may lead to a public backlash, ending up as little more than an EU buzzword.

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