23 Dec 2021

The EU’s 2021 trade policy review

An autonomous assertion of strategic objectives?

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The concept of strategic autonomy has dominated the EU policy discourse for a number of years now, going hand- in-hand with other aspirations, such as geopolitical power and European sovereignty. The notion was first developed in the realm of external action to operationalize the Union’s response to military aggression and hybrid threats by neighbouring and farther-flung adversaries. But it has since been expanded to increase Europe’s self-sufficiency and boost its industry in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and in a world tainted by the Sino-American rivalry.

Building on the rather elusive concept of “open strategic autonomy,” the European Commission on 18 February 2021 presented its new trade strategy: “An Open, Sustainable and Assertive Trade Policy”. Its aim is to support the EU’s economic recovery by boosting green and digital transformations as well as a renewed focus on strengthening multilateralism and reforming global trade rules to ensure their fairness and sustainability. The document prioritizes reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in particular and aims to bolster the implementation and enforcement of EU trade agreements.

This paper takes a closer look at the EU’s new take on trade and asks how the concept of open strategic autonomy should be understood, which policy areas are most likely to be affected by it, what obstacles may prevent achieving it, and what are the implications for transatlantic relations and for the future of EU-China relations.