EU(ropean) Actorness in a Shifting Geopolitical Order: Strategic Autonomy through Differentiated Integration

Pernille Rieker, Mathilde Tomine Eriksdatter Giske |

In their Palgrave Pivot book, Pernille Rieker and Mathilde Tomine Eriksdatter Giske make sense of and evaluate the state of European strategic autonomy using a novel framework of differentiated integration. This framework captures the complexity of European integration both within the EU and beyond, taking into consideration the vertical and horizontal, formal and informal, internal and external dimensions of integration. It opens up for an alternative understanding of EU(ropean) actorness and strategic autonomy.

Military helicopter and flags. Photo taken in Kranj during the visit of Ursula von der Leyen to Ljubljana, Slovenia, to express her solidarity and witness the destruction caused by the floods. Photo: Dati Bendo/European Union

The past decade has seen significant geopolitical changes. The financial crisis, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rise of a more aggressive Russia and China, cumulating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has put European security on high alert. While there is a general agreement concerning the need for boosting EU(ropean) strategic autonomy to ensure security and stability, there is disagreement concerning not only what it is, but also how this can best be achieved.

In their forthcoming publication, Rieker and Giske put forward a twofold argument. First, they argue that strategic autonomy includes more than building a European defense structure or an autonomous Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). While military threats are still prevalent, they are not the only threats with which the EU and broader Europe is concerned. Threats of a more hybrid character are equally, if not more, threatening to European security. A consequence of this is that there is a need to look beyond the traditional security and defense mechanisms and include policy areas that are both directly and indirectly contributing to European security. This includes but is not limited to the areas of trade, development and humanitarian aid, energy security, and cooperation with non-members beyond the borders of the EU.

Second, in order to fully assess the state of EU(ropean) strategic autonomy, one has to include not only the policies, initiatives and processes that are occurring within the EU. There is a need to consider the variety of bi- and multi-lateral processes that are not formally part of the EU, but are closely linked to it, as well. These processes involve different actors in and beyond the borders of the EU. When considered together, they provide a more nuanced and accurate picture of the state of European actorness and strategic autonomy than if only EU processes and initiatives are considered. This also makes EU(ropean) strategic autonomy a case of differentiated integration, where the result is a patchwork of processes that together contribute to European security and actorness. It is often argued that it is important to distinguish between what is the EU and what is European. However, such a distinction is becoming progressively difficult in a European context that is increasingly characterised by differentiated integration.

A case of differentiated integration

Applying a broad understanding of integration that incorporates both the vertical/horizontal, the formal/informal and the internal/external dimension, Rieker and Giske capture the dynamics of an increasingly complex EU(ropean) differentiated integration process. This sort of integration is characterised by opt-ins and opt-outs, enhanced cooperation and various forms of multi-level governance, where those who are willing and able work together to increase the depth and width of integration. As integration works on a continuum, ranging from full integration to no integration, everything between these two extremes is understood as some form of differentiated integration.

In order to differentiate between levels of integration they borrow form J. March’s three dimensions of integration: the level of interdependence, both economic and political; consistency, understood as sharing common goals and values; and structural connectedness, which refers to the number of meetings and shared resources between the actors. Applying their own dimension as well, namely decision-making capacity, they provide a novel framework of differentiated integration that captures the complexity of European foreign, security and defense policy.

A fully integrated system will require a high level of both interdependence, consistency, structural connectedness, and decision-making capacity. However, most processes will fall somewhere in the middle, denoting some form of differentiated integration. While all four dimensions are crucial for integration, they are not necessarily strongly correlated. For instance, there can be a high level of consistency in an area, but low levels of independence. This flexibility of the allows us say something substantial about the different forms of differentiated integration, as it takes into account a wide variety of processes and initiatives.

Finally, in order to provide a new understanding of what drives these processes forward, what slows them down and what might reverse them, the contribution includes the role of agency. This agency does not just come from the member states but can also be found within the EU institutions. Distinguishing between leaders, followers, laggards and disruptors, the role of agency helps us better understand the motivations of whether or not to engage with deeper forms of integration, both for members and non-members. Additionally, it better conceptualizes the multi-actor character of EU(rope) that has become a permanent feature of European foreign and security policy – a policy that covers multiple areas and is carried out by a multitude of actors and institutions.

Differentiated integration in practice

In order to assess EU(ropean) strategic autonomy, Rieker and Giske apply the framework to show how differentiated integration works in practice. First, it is used to study the development of Europe as a global actor. The chapter investigates the extent to which Europe, with the EU at its core, has managed to develop capabilities for pursuing a global role, before it moves on to identify the levels of European differentiated integration, and what this tells us about the existence of European strategic autonomy at the global stage. They argue that the EU has a role to play on the global scene, and not only in areas where the EU has exclusive powers, such as trade and market regulation. The EU also functions as a strategic actor in areas that are characterised by shared competencies such as climate and development, areas where the EU has more of a coordinating role such as in Civil protection

Following from this, they move to the specific area of European security and defense. The geopolitical situation makes Europe more committed to building a stronger European security and defense capability. The chapter goes through initiatives taken in the area of security and defense integration in the last 15 years, before it goes deeper into the various defense capability processes taken within the two key multilateral institutions, the EU and NATO, as well as the less formal bilateral and multilateral initiatives taken outside the institutional frameworks. They find that most intra-EU initiatives are characterised by mid- to high levels of interdependence, consistency, structural connectedness, and decision-making capacity, which indicates mid- to high levels of integration. Additionally, they find that while the wide variety of bi- and multilateral initiatives taken outside the formal EU framework is characterised by lower levels of integration, they are important instruments to facilitate a higher level of European defence integration. The chapter concludes by arguing that European defense capacities cannot be limited to either the CSDP or the European pillar in NATO. Rather, these processes are also part of a wider network of differentiated integration, that together result in a strengthened European defense and capacity to act.

Finally, the authors move beyond the borders of the EU and explore European common societal security through a whole-of-society approach. Through agreements and systematized links, the EU has created a web of institutionalized relations expanding far beyond the borders of the Union. These relationships are understood as instances of external differentiated integration, and range from broad, multilateral frameworks, such as the European Economic Area, and more narrow, bilateral trade agreements with non-members. They find that most of these processes in general are characterised by low levels of integration, with the exception of Schengen and EU candidates. This is not surprising, as there are limits to how integrated a non-EU state can be. However, the chapter argues that external differentiated integration is a central part of the Union’s external policy and that EU involvement with non-EU European states has led to mutually beneficial and closer ties between the EU and its neighbours.

Together, these chapters show that the current formal and informal differentiated integration process is shaping EU(rope) as an actor that also can claim an increasing degree of strategic autonomy. In this perspective, strategic autonomy is not as unlikely or difficult to achieve as suggested. Through a wide variety of agreements, policies, and initiatives, the EU has contributed to making Europe a more important actor. This also indicates that Europe is continuously evolving, with the EU as its core, to improve its capacity to handle various geopolitical challenges. The EU(ropean) approach to the recent crises suggests that this is the case. While the future is uncertain, it is not unlikely that a flexible and differentiated integration process will be able to adjust itself so that it can handle also the future challenges when they occur.