The ideational power of strategic autonomy in EU security and external economic policies


by Ana E. Juncos, Bristol University and Sophie Vanhoonacker, Maastricht University

EU Strategic autonomy: different trajectories in security and external economic relations

Global shifts in power distribution and successive international crises have challenged key ideas and policies underpinning European Union (EU) external action and led to the formulation of a new narrative in which geopolitical considerations have come back to centre stage. One of the main ideas put forward to deal with the increasingly unstable international environment is strategic autonomy (SA), understood as the capacity of the EU to act independently in realizing its strategic objectives and defending its interests and values. Although the SA concept was born in the security domain, it has gathered pace in the field of EU external economic relations. Puzzled by these different trajectories, our recent JCMS contribution  seeks to get a better understanding of why an idea originally born in the area of security and defence has become more embedded in the field of trade and external economic relations. We aim to solve this puzzle by researching the role and power of ideas and how they enable actors to push for policy change in a context of geopolitical uncertainty.

Using the analytical lenses of discursive institutionalism, we examine how policy entrepreneurs took advantage of international developments such as the Presidency of Donald Trump, the Covid-19 pandemic or the war in Ukraine to transform both the cognitive and normative beliefs of actors, and to what extent they have been translated into new EU policies. In a comparative analysis in the domains of EU security and external economic relations, we focus on three dimensions of ideational power: power in, power through and power over to understand the different trajectories of SA in these two policy areas. We argue that the ability of ideational entrepreneurs such as the Commission to push for this idea, supported by the coercive power derived from its exclusive trade competences, facilitated the adoption of this concept in the form of ‘open strategic autonomy’. By contrast, French President Emmanuel Macron was unable to persuade others to move towards a more sovereigntist conception of SA in the area of security and defence. Only in the case of defence capability development, where the Commission enjoys budgetary power and competences in industrial policy, has SA been able to take hold.

Hegemonic discourses – Power in Ideas

As a first step, we look into how the SA concept relates to prevalent hegemonic ideas at the EU level. While our analysis of EU strategic documents shows that the SA discourse indeed has challenged the predominant philosophies on how to best guarantee the Union’s prosperity in a rapidly changing geopolitical and geoeconomic context, it is still too early to speak of a paradigmatic change. The deeply ingrained neoliberal paradigm and the continuing controversies between Atlanticists and Europeanists have proven to be quite resilient. For instance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been perceived by Atlanticists as clear example of the continued need to rely on NATO for defence and to maintain the close political and security ties with the US. By contrasts, the Europeanist camp has argued that the war in Ukraine has drawn attention to the weaknesses and dependencies of EU member states in matters of defence and the need to address those by strengthening SA. Hence, the ambiguity surrounding the concept remains.

Discursive Entrepreneurs – Power through ideas
The launching of new ideas is always accompanied with discursive interactions and struggles about the definition of problems and their possible solutions. In security and defence, we argue that the French President Macron, who has been the key discursive entrepreneur, did not manage to persuade others to follow a more sovereigntist understanding of SA. In line with French strategic thinking, President Macron has repeatedly emphasized the need for the EU to strengthen its capacity to defend itself and to act independently from others. Yet, other member states, particularly Central and Eastern European countries, have rejected this notion. This is well illustrated in the 2022 Strategic Compass with its emphasis on partnerships, but also explicitly noting that NATO ‘remains the foundation of collective defence for its members’. By contrast, in the area of trade, the European Commission has been more successful. Although the member states were also divided in the field of external economic relations, DG Trade cleverly coined the term Open Strategic Autonomy (OSA). This helped to build a bridge between those favouring a more protective EU approach and the so-called ‘friends of the internal market’.

Authority and Competences – Power over Ideas

As a third step, we examine the coercive capacity of policy entrepreneurs, i.e. the resources and/or competences that those actors have within a particular institutional context. Here our comparative analysis shows that in security and defence, where supranational institutions are relatively weak and every member state is a potential veto player, it has been more difficult to impose new ideas than in external economic relations, where national capitals have delegated competences to the EU. Despite several discussions at the highest political level, the member states did not manage to reach consensus on what to understand under SA in the security field. In the area of external economic relations on the contrary, a well-resourced  DG Trade did not only develop a new Trade Policy Review (2021) but also managed to move ahead with developing a whole range of new trade instruments aimed at promoting sustainable value chains, supporting the EU’s regulatory impact, enforcing trade agreements and ensuring a level playing field.

What have we learned?
Our comparative analysis shows that to understand the different success rates of the SA concept in the area of security and external economic relations, it does not suffice to merely study the external drivers of the EU’s geopolitical turn. We demonstrate that it is also important to pay attention to internal factors, such as the role of ideas. The study of discursive struggles about dominant paradigms, the role of policy entrepreneurs and their authority and competences is indispensable to better understand the EU response to the rapidly changing international context.

We conclude that although the debate about the reformulation of security and external economic policies took place in parallel, over time we have seen a ‘security logic’ being transposed to the EU’s external economic policies. Whilst the convergence of the two debates could positively impact coherence, it also brings risks. If one of the biggest defenders of free trade and multilateralism is increasingly reverting to a sovereigntist discourse and a policy of relative gains, this may negatively impact the openness of the global trade system and the EU’s international influence.

Ana E. Juncos is Professor European Politics at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. Her primary research interest lies in European foreign and security policy, with a particular focus on EU conflict prevention and peacebuiding.



Sophie Vanhoonacker is Professor in Administrative Governance at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University. Her research focuses on the institutional aspects of EU External Relations and administrative governance in the area of foreign and security policy.