A prosperous Europe is an autonomous and open Europe

The EESC held a conference on the future of European strategic autonomy. The event was organised jointly by three Committee bodies; the Digital Transition and Single Market Observatory, the Labour Market Observatory and the Sustainable Development Observatory. Policy-makers, experts from organised civil society and academia, as well as youth representatives, gathered to discuss how to overcome current and future obstacles to a self-sufficient EU in times of great geopolitical tensions and multiple crises.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, and now with the war in Ukraine, almost all EU Member States seem to agree that Europe should do everything it can to boost its self-sufficiency. Originally focused on matters of security and defence, the concept of open strategic autonomy now encompasses a wide range of policies, including financial services, the digital economy, energy and critical raw materials, as well as healthcare.

What should European open strategic autonomy look like? What level of ambitions should be pursued? What is the role of civil society in achieving it? How can coherence between EU policies be ensured? These were some of the questions addressed during the conference, which took place a few weeks after the EESC presented a comprehensive vision for achieving strategic autonomy in energy

We can only protect our democratic values effectively if open strategic autonomy becomes a living concept for Europe, with organised civil society systematically involved in the making of it, said EESC President Christa Schweng, opening the conference. To achieve this, the EU needs to develop its capabilities and move from one-sided dependencies to collaboration and mutual development. Autonomy absolutely must gohand in hand with openness.

Lech Pilawski, President of the Labour Market Observatory (LMO), Arnaud Schwartz, President of the Sustainable Development Observatory (SDO), and Louise Grabo, President of the Digital Transition and Single Market Observatory (DSMO), led the discussions.

The first panel was moderated by EESC member Judith Vorbach. Paola Piccinini, Head of Unit at the Joint Research Centre, presented the Commission's latest instrument for European technological sovereignty: the Observatory of Critical Technologies. Ms Piccinini was followed by the Head of Foresight at the OECD, Duncan Cass-Beggs, who reiterated the importance of anticipating game changers and of identifying emerging existential risks when designing policies, especially when it comes to new technology such as AI. EESC rapporteur Sandra Parthie also presented the Committee's recommendations on the 2021 Strategic Foresight Report, pointing out the importance of ensuring Europe's workforce has the necessary skills and of investing heavily in infrastructure development. This is how Europe will be relevant in the future on the global scene, and how it will keep its industries, she said.

The labour and social dimensions

Roberto Poli, from the University of Trento, suggested three "inexpensive" ways to achieve strategic autonomy in the EU: reorganise cities in a way that favours walking, abandon the traditional vision of work, in which workers are viewed only in terms of their ability to complete certain tasks, and work on disseminating common values across Europe. EESC member, Maria del Carmen Barrera Chamorro, spoke of the profound social challenge of the energy transition. We need funds to distribute the cost, and for reskilling programmes to boost workers' employability in a decarbonised economy. This should always be done through social dialogue and bargaining. Lastly, Maxime Cerutti, Director of BusinessEurope’s Social Affairs department, laid out three key areas of action to mitigate the challenge of labour and skills shortages in the EU: the knowledge triangle (the interaction between research, education and innovation), targeted economic migration, and social protection mechanisms.

The environmental dimension

Director of the E.ON Stiftung, René Mono, suggested turning on its head the way we try to achieve energy autonomy and working bottom-up, rather than starting from the global perspective. It is almost impossible to have an optimised energy mix if we only think in terms of big projects. We need to look at decentralised technologies, and work our way up in terms of building infrastructure and energy-trading mechanisms. Cristina Chirico, from the World Farmers' Organisation, stressed the fact that agriculture had to be profitable in order to become sustainable. Isabel Rutkowski, representing Freiburg Catholic Rural Youth, highlighted the importance of involving young people in discussions and decision-making on the autonomy of the EU's food system.

Digital innovation

Malorie Schaus, from CEPS, explained how Europe could help eco-friendly innovation through a reviewed trade policy. EESC rapporteur Dumitru Fornea closed the last panel of the day with a comment on the very concept of strategic autonomy. Shouldn't we instead talk about strategic interdependence? The EU is clearly dependent on other countries in terms of raw materials and needs to figure out how it can gain consistent access to them.

The three EESC Observatory presidents ended the day with a few thoughts:

We often hear that the concept of strategic autonomy has been developed around security and defence. But the ecological movement promoted a similar idea for a long time, with the emphasis on collaborating to create a peaceful collective future by looking at regional capacities. At the EESC, as the representatives of European organised civil society, we must ensure that this part of the open strategic autonomy is promoted at EU level, Arnaud Schwartz, SDO President.

A European open strategic autonomy is not about protectionism. It is about having a plan B, and even a plan C, and standing strong in the face of future crises. Such an approach can encourage eco-friendly innovations and be at the forefront of the green and digital transition, Louise Grabo, DSMO President.

The current context of great geopolitical tensions, multiple crises, such as the demographic crisis, and technological challenges is forcing us to revise our perception of Europe's resilience and achieve a much higher level of self-sufficiency, or strategic European autonomy. Today we discussed that, but this is just the beginning. The EU needs to wake up and react fast, and this may require a growth paradigm shiftLech Pilawski, LMO President.