‘We’re not yet in a cold war’: Spain places rebuilding trust at heart of EU sovereignty case

09 Mar 2023 | News

Open strategic autonomy will be one of Spain’s priorities when it takes up the EU presidency in July. The aim will be to define a strategy for the EU to end its dependency on imports of strategic technologies and resources

Diego Rubio, director of Spain’s National Office of Foresight and Strategy, speaking at a STOA meeting on 7 March 2023. Photo: Eric Vidal / European Union


Spain is planning to use its upcoming six-month stint at the helm of the EU Council to tone down a tendency to “overreact” to the growing political and technological rivalry between the US and China, according to Diego Rubio, director of Spain’s National Office of Foresight and Strategy.

“The world is not falling apart,” Rubio told an event organised by the European Parliament’s future of science and technology committee (STOA) on Tuesday. “The numbers don’t show we are entering a new cold war yet.”

Spain has chosen open strategic autonomy as one of its key priorities for its presidency and Rubio, whose office will play a key role, said the country wants to champion rebuilding trust with the EU’s allies as part of this. He did not specifically name names. 

Aside from rebuilding trust, Spain wants to champion the idea that Europe is not necessarily a weak player in terms of global competitiveness, with Rubio saying it is still a “powerhouse” in areas such as research and innovation, trade, finance, pharmaceuticals and more.

But this is not to say there is no scope for improvement. Rather, Rubio suggested, the door is open to push for wide-scale structural changes in Europe, on the back of crises including COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis.

“We really have to use the opportunity to make substantial changes,” Rubio said, giving the examples of reducing dependence on imports of drugs by increasing domestic manufacturing capacity, and cutting food imports by reducing food waste. 

Take back control

Spain’s decision to make open strategic autonomy one of its Presidency priorities does not come from nowhere. The term has been a buzzword permeating various EU reports, doctrines and acts for at least the past decade.

It began in the context of defence, with the US somewhat taking its eye off the Russia issue to focus on China, the UK and its sizeable military might withdrawing from the EU, and with the election of US president Donald Trump and his aversion to NATO.

All this led to many of Europe’s top brass deciding that they needed to take back military control, and from here the need for strategic autonomy, or sovereignty, has spread across different sectors. 

It is now found in industry, with acts on critical raw materials and semiconductors in the pipeline, in the energy sector, as Europe tries to wean itself off Russian gas supplies, in agricultue as food imports are threatened by war in Ukraine, and in the digital sphere as the EU cracks down on US corporate giants such as Facebook and Twitter through privacy measures. 

In this mish mash, there is a lack of clarity on what open strategic autonomy means in practical terms, Rubio told the STOA meeting.  

The European Commission wrote in a trade policy paper in 2021 that the concept, “emphasises the EU’s ability to make its own choices and shape the world around it through leadership and engagement, reflecting its strategic interests and values.” 

Meanwhile the “openness” in the name can be summed up by an adage now repeated across EU institutions and reiterated once more by Spanish MEP Lina Gálvez Muñoz at the STOA meeting,Cooperating multilaterally whenever we can - and acting autonomously whenever we must.” 

But nailing down the EU’s understanding and approach to open strategic autonomy at a policy level remains somewhat blurred. 

Rubio said that while the member states have displayed strength in responding to recent crises and vulnerabilities, the bloc as a whole is failing to think longer term. Disengaging from reliance on Russian gas in an emergency is one thing, but finding sustainable long-term alternatives is another, he said.

“We cannot keep relying on crisis management to solve our problems,” he said. Responding to emergencies is a very costly and ineffective way of changing reality.”

If the EU is to get ahead of global events in the same way that the US, China, South Korea do, and achieve strategic autonomy, it needs to develop “real strategic foresight and anticipatory government capabilities," he argued. “That is where we are really failing.” 

“We’ve seen many member states creating foresight offices, also the European Parliament, the Commission. Now the UN is creating a foresight unit. These capabilities are appearing, and methods are improving, but we are failing to integrate their feedback into the decisions we are making today,” Rubio said. 

“We don’t have a vision on the role we want to play in the global arena 20 or 30 years from today.”

Attractions of Europe

Similarly, Alice Pannier, head of French think tank Ifri’s Geopolitics of Technology programme, pointed to the need for a long term vision. Europe’s vulnerabilities in the value chain, in areas such as research, intellectual property, commercialisation, manufacturing, raw materials, software and so on, are well documented

What is less well articulated is how Europe intends to address these weaknesses. There are two ways this can be achieved, she said, one is through long-term efforts, the other is through global partnerships. 

“What needs to be better articulated is that anything approaching strategic autonomy as an endpoint is a long-term endeavour,” Pannier said. “This approach should be built on research and innovation and science and technology. There are no short-term fixes for [Europe’s] strategic dependencies.”

Signs of a shift to taking a long-term approach can be seen in policies such as the Chips act and the Critical raw materials act, she said.

To forge partnerships that help ensure Europe’s sovereignty, the attractions of the EU needed to be put forward more. “The partners we want to engage […] are also being courted by the US and China,” Pannier noted. The EU’s more human centred and regulated approach could give it an edge, she said. 

In advance of taking on the EU presidency in July, Spain has already got the ball rolling on open strategic autonomy. A research project involving the majority of EU member states – Rubio said 26 at the STOA meeting but Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez previously said 25 – will work together to produce a report on the EU’s main strategic vulnerabilities, which is due out in the summer. 

Following this, in October, Spain will host an informal council meeting in Granada where open strategic autonomy will be on the agenda.

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