Europe’s Values Must Be the Foundation for its Strategic Autonomy

Published on: 10 January 2023

An Tánaiste & Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence

RENEW Europe Seminar on Strategic Autonomy

European Parliament, Tuesday 10th January 2023


I would like to start by thanking you Stephane and the Renew Europe Group for organising this event. It is particularly fitting because we are at the start of what will be another critical year for the European Union and its Member States.


We face a unique combination of both immediate and long-term challenges. Together they are fundamental to our economic, social and environmental future.


The case for ambitious cooperation and action by the members of the European Union is stronger today than ever before – and so too is the need for us to assert the distinct interests and values of our Union.


Strategic autonomy across a wide range of areas has moved from being an interesting point of debate to being an urgent necessity.


However, before we proceed much further with the debate we have to commit ourselves to changing how we hold such debates.


During most of the last half a century, one of the most consistent factors when we have been dealing with the powers and roles of the European Union is that these debates are generally framed in a negative way. We hear huge amounts of handwringing about the need to address supposed failures of the Union – and the Union is often painted as some form of straggler being left behind by more dynamic countries.


I believe that the new momentum behind strategic autonomy presents us with the opportunity to completely reverse this – to recognise the core strengths of our Union and enormous benefits which flow to all of the people of Europe when we recognise and build on our strengths.


I believe that events of recent years have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the core vision and values of the Union remain more relevant than ever before.


In place of a debate where people were asking if Europe was over, if it had lost its relevance and appeal, we have seen example after example of the Union protecting and supporting all of its members.


We too rarely step back from our daily agendas to recognise the underlying strengths of the Union and how these strengths are seen in every country.


The core economic promise of the Union has been reflected in the fact that every member state is better off today than they would have been by going alone. There is no longer anyone seriously seeking to make the case that our economies would be stronger without the rules-based order of our Union.


This is in no way to deny that there are problems faced in many parts of the Union, with the need to support sustained development in regions hit by a falling population being a particularly serious one.


Every member of the Union participates on the basis of full democratic legitimacy underpinning its membership. Accessions have been ratified by the people or their parliaments and in accordance with each member’s constitutional order.

Here in the Parliament and in the Council and other bodies, every member has the opportunity to speak up for their distinct interests.


It is striking how often the extreme anti-EU sentiments of the far right and far left being marginalised in their programmes. The EU’s resilience in the face of the populist onslaught is striking.


And we are also increasingly seeing that, for all of our countries, it is only by working together that we can confront urgent public health and security challenges – including the existential threat of climate change.


The coordinated action of the Union and its members during the worst phase of the Covid-19 pandemic has protected lives and livelihoods on a scale which would have been impossible otherwise.


This was in spite of the fact that public health is not a major competence of the European Union.


We quickly agreed a range of economic responses, helping to retain confidence and move towards a sustained recovery – confirmed again by this week’s employment figures.


And Europe became a vaccine powerhouse. There were certainly early problems, but these were quickly overcome through coordination and the impact of joint contracts. During the critical phase of the vaccination programme Europe exported two billion doses to 167 countries – becoming by far the biggest supplier and donor of vaccines to countries with no capacity of their own.


Through urgent and ambitious action, stretching the resources and competencies of the Union to their limit, we achieved critical strategic autonomy – and we did it in a way which showed that a Europe which achieves this autonomy remains committed to global solidarity.


There is a powerful lesson for us in this.


For those of us who believe that a Europe which is less dependent on others and retains broad capacities, we are absolutely not talking about a Europe which has turned in on itself. In fact, in many cases, achieving strategic autonomy in critical areas is the essential enabler of Europe fulfilling its potential to work constructively and effectively with others.


Putin’s war against Ukraine is another demonstration of this. Within the Union, we have found a way forward to coordinate significant action on sanctions, humanitarian aid and security aid. Critical to this was the acceptance that while many of us have a different emphasis or capacity to help, we should accept the responsibility for Europe as a whole to both act and be held accountable for its decisions.


Again, this has in no way undermined the role of those from outside the Union and it has not prevented strong and effective coordination with many different countries.


Of course the most important lesson from Ukraine is that the ideal of a Europe defined by liberal democracy continues to inspire – and it demands our constant vigilance. The neo-imperialist and authoritarian model which Putin is trying to impose on his neighbours is fundamentally threatened when democracies working together to prove that societies prosper in freedom. He has shown time

and again that he will seek to promote division and extremism within a Union which is too much of a positive example.


He has shown that we have to be vigilant in protecting our politics and that we simply cannot allow ourselves to be dependent on those who seek to undermine our values.


Global trade has been a central driver in the sustained reduction of poverty throughout the world. It has demonstrated conclusively that it can be a force for good, and in no way can achieving strategic autonomy be seen as a threat to our commitment to fair global trade. However we have a right and a duty to act to protect ourselves from potential intimidation and manipulation by others. The ability to sustain our core activities irrespective of the behaviour of outside actors is not an option it is essential.


A lot has been said already about security capacities. I would like to point to three other concrete areas where we can and should act with greater urgency and ambition.


Unquestionably we need to develop a greater shared competence to react to public health crises, including our ability to both develop and manufacture critical medicines – making them accessible fairly to all states irrespective of their size. The scale an importance of Europe as a public health market needs to be matched by it secured research and manufacturing capacities.


Covid showed us that this core capacity has to be found within the Union, and also how much can be achieved when we understand this.


The achievement of sustained energy independence is also an urgent need. The only way we can guarantee that we will never again be held to ransom by an aggressive supplier is for Europe to become a clean energy superpower. Progress has been highly inconsistent over the past decade, but today we know that both the future of our democracies and the future of our planet demand that we dramatically increase our work to develop and sustain our clean energy capacities.


I also believe that we have much more to do in relation to making Europe a driving force in strategic innovation. While international collaborations are vital, we have not fully addressed the need for achieving scale and independence. Our financial support for innovation remains low in comparison to our ambitions for developing products and industries which will serve our all regions. We remain relatively slow in how we fund, oversee and evaluate innovation – and in how we see the crucial role of public funding in this.


And in order to make strategic autonomy more credible, we have to move away from the zero-sum approach we take to budgeting and competencies.


The practical economic benefit to every member state from European action goes well beyond the funding provided. But every time we discuss the budget we end up trying to take funding away from successful programmes in order to fund new ones.


That is why, on behalf of my country, I agreed to proposals which led to us becoming a significant net-contributor and why I have argued for a Europe with the ambition to move to a new moment of achievement for our Union.


It is the founding values and spirit of free democracy which are the greatest strategic strength of our Union. They have enabled peace and progress in our countries and, as we see every day in Ukraine, they continue to inspire.