The European Union's quest for strategic autonomy: divergence of understandings across member states and its implications for cooperation
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Being present in the European Union’s (EU) strategic documents and commonly used in political statements, “strategic autonomy” has become one of the latest catchphrases in European security and defence discourse. The ambiguous nature of this concept has led to concerns that it may have different meanings among the EU member states and the lack of common understanding may hamper the practical cooperation working towards this end. Informed by constructivist theorising on meaning-making across national contexts and the notions of constructive/destructive ambiguity, this thesis seeks to substantiate the debates on European strategic autonomy by providing empirical insights to it. The aims of this study are twofold. Drawing on original data from 23 expert interviews, first, in order to establish the empirical picture of the diversity of meanings of the notion of EU strategic autonomy, it maps out the national understandings of the concept in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and Estonia. Second, in order to assess the implications of the multiplicity of interpretations for cooperation, the study then explores how the actors themselves perceive the issue of diverging understandings in the context of practical cooperation taking place in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework. As regards to the multiple understandings of the concept of strategic autonomy, the findings of this study show that the core meaning of it is similar for all the analysed member states, that being “Europe’s capacity to act as Europe in security and defence related matters”. However, divergences emerge in relation to more reflective issues, such as aiming for self-sufficiency or seeing gradual capability development as an end in itself; the degree of exclusivity implied by this ambition; and whether a European drive in the direction of autonomy is perceived as a potential threat to transatlantic values. In terms of the impact of the multiplicity of interpretations on practical cooperation, the second key finding of this study suggests that the ambiguity of the notion of strategic autonomy is not necessarily hindering to practical cooperation that is taking place in the EU frameworks aimed to support this ambition. Rather, the policy-makers across the member states perceive the cooperative action itself as something that leads to more clarity and eventually helps to pinpoint the collective understanding of the goals to be achieved.