If ‘strategic autonomy’ is to define the EU’s relation to the world, linked trade deals must not mean dependence for workers.
The European Union has committed itself to the policy objective of ‘open strategic autonomy’. That means boosting Europe’s ability to support and defend itself through its own resources, with less reliance on other parts of the world. The concept has important implications for the agenda not only of foreign policy, including trade, but also internally: industrial strategy, competition and so on.
Trade unions have a strong interest in shaping a new approach that will favour workers’ rights and jobs, externally and internally. We will need massive investments in research and innovation in new technologies to reduce our dependency on raw materials, for instance, and to develop a fair regulatory framework for artificial intelligence—a key driver of future growth where Europe lags behind other superpowers.
Externally, regulating global trade responsibly will be paramount, requiring long-overdue EU legislation mandating human-rights and environmental due diligence. Trade and labour are key dimensions of this approach, and trade unions must be involved in developing policies which promote fair trade, social justice, democracy and environmental sustainability.
Vulnerability of supplies
The pandemic has been a wake-up call, laying bare Europe’s vulnerability to disruption of the supply of vital goods—from face masks to semi-conductors—from elsewhere. Member states found they could not meet their own manufacturing needs nor rely on supply chains, whether within the union or involving major economies such as China and the United States. The EU has concluded that it needs to be better prepared and more self-sufficient.
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But ‘strategic autonomy’ raises many tough questions. The global economy has become increasingly complex. International trade, workers’ rights, climate change and finite vital natural resources all demand transnational solutions.
In the early 17th century, the British poet, and later priest, John Donne wrote:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less ….
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
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Donne’s meditation, written in the wake of his life-threatening illness, revealed a truth which has reverberated down the ages. Globally, we depend upon each other, and our seemingly separate lives are ineluctably intertwined.
All living things and social entities—from human beings to national states and advanced international organisations—live in a balance between their inner and outer conditions. Demands and needs have always to be addressed. In a world where the only constant is change, upholding a balance is a continuous struggle.
While the EU strives to be self-sustaining, as a continent and a trading bloc, it is inevitably dependent to an extent on others. Europe lives in permanent tension between the closed and the open—protectionism and free trade.
The fundamental question is: where do we accept dependency and where do we seek self-sufficiency? This question is at the core of developing strategic autonomy, and the answer is not self-evident.
When it comes to trade, the EU has naïvely embraced a ‘free market’, neoliberal agenda and failed sufficiently to support, and invest in, its own industries. It has also been too dependent on fossil energy, sometimes imported over vast distances.
August Lindberg, president of the Swedish trade union federation LO in the 1930s and 40s, used to say that keeping such a federation together required giving each member sufficient scope for egotistical behaviour. All co-operative ventures need to allow for the pursuit of some self-interest.
This notion can be helpful in the evolving debate on strategic autonomy. The trick is to define it.
EU legislation plus judgments by the European Court of Justice define ‘sufficient scope’ within member states. The exact content of EU law can change over time and is often ambiguous, although there is consensus at least on the processes involved.
But how is sufficient scope expressed in EU trade agreements? We need a more consensual trade policy that takes into account the interests of all stakeholders, not only business. This is the only way to gain public support in striving for strategic autonomy as part of Europe’s recovery programme.
More for workers
EU trade policy has to do more for workers. Strategic autonomy will not work if imposed as a top-down policy that sacrifices the welfare of working people. Trade unions must have a meaningful role, which they now lack, in developing the agenda.
How should workers’ interests be promoted in EU trade agreements? Violations of basic labour rights are insufficiently countered by dispute settlement clauses. When it comes to fighting pure trade disputes, the EU is very proactive; it needs to be equally proactive in enforcing labour rights. The labour dimension is an intrinsic part of the debate around strategic autonomy.
Many trade agreements have been beneficial for European multinationals, yet workers have lost their jobs because of relocation of production outside the EU and lack of investment in key skills. Strategic autonomy needs to protect jobs and ensure many more workers benefit from the wealth generated by trade. There have been too many losers on the workers’ side in recent years. Trade arrangements, and neoliberal globalisation more widely, have been factors in the rise of right-wing populism.
Strategic autonomy and future trade agreements need to represent a ‘win-win’ for many more workers. The European Trade Union Confederation has been at the forefront of demands for the European Commission to promote a fairer trading policy, incorporating a ‘just transition’ for workers affected by market changes.
There has been a shift in the narrative, but this has yet to be translated into action. Strategic autonomy must embrace, in a coherent way, other EU initiatives in the social and environmental arena, such as the European Pillar of Social Rights and the European Green Deal.
Europe needs to seize the opportunity of post-pandemic recovery to insist on workers’ rights, fair working conditions and social justice across the EU and in all trading partners. These objectives cannot be separated from the need to protect the global environment and counter climate change.
The ETUC will continue to press for a strategic autonomy that benefits workers and their families around the globe.
Claes-Mikael Ståhl has been deputy general secretary at the European Trade Union Confederation since September 2021. He deals with trade, mobility, employment, cohesion funds and occupational health and safety.