H.E. Violeta Bulc, Commissioner for Transport and Mobility (2014-2019): Strategic autonomy of the EU

»Autonomy is the capacity of an agent to act in accordance with objective morality rather than under the influence of desires.”[1]

H.E. Violeta Bulc

Written by H.E. Violeta Bulc, European Commissioner for Transport and Mobility (2014 – 2019), Deputy Prime-Minister of Republic of Slovenia

We live in times where every m2 of the planet is claimed. Where every citizen of the world has multiple identities[2], where glocalization is blurring the borders, where businesses are depending on each other globally, and the awareness along with knowledge is broadening the minds of individuals faster than societies can re-adjust. These changes seem to represent bigger and bigger challenge to the establishment, “old money” and self-proclaimed political elite who keep forgetting that the bigger the development gap is, the more conflicts emerge, larger the distance between citizens and the politics is, more extreme ideas surface, smaller the middle class is, poorer the economy and less capacity of the society to readjust to the forces of life. But the new is growing in spite of the resistance to change and many different scenarios are emerging. It is of the utmost importance that societies lay out different scenarios and be ready to re-adjust the understandings based on the emergence of new.

At the same time the complexity of our societies is growing, concentrating over 80% of the global population in the cities, more and more activities are being exercised in Nature 3[3], infusing even more VUCA[4]characteristics.  They are challenging our perception of life, our role in the Universe, our ability to respond, our ability to organise and act. The old leadership styles, organisational designs and governance models are no longer able to adequately respond to these changes, adding another layer of complexity to the unstable transitional period. We are more and more acting in the spirit of RUPT[5] behaviour without ever being trained or educated for it. Such lack of knowing adds confusion and spreads unnecessary fear and instability to our societies, making us even more vulnerable in the face of the laws of nature.

In the middle of this dynamics the EU is searching for its strategic autonomy, looking for its space in the repositioning of global powers and the emergence of new global net based business and social models. The task is dealing not only with identification of the core strategic pillars of the EU’s sovereignty, but also addressing embedded differences between member states, e.g., historical, cultural, religious, national. But the good news is that such a debate is taking place. The EU has been seriously challenged in the last 10 years with one crisis after the other[6]. Each of the crises has shown the weaknesses and strengths of this ever-evolving European project. 

My intention is to argue that the EU needs a clear positioning around the major global trends, as well as some country specific issues. However, autonomy does not mean isolation. I would even argue that isolation is killing autonomy. The secret is in knowing what you want, how you want it and why and then engage with the rest of the world based on this basic intention. My invitation is that the EU gains a clear strategic autonomy over the following issues: 

1.     Democracy

In spite of the fact that the number of democratic countries is rising, a closer look reveals that many of them are in transition, “pointing to the democratic fragility of many democracies. The number of weak democracies with low democratic quality is increasing”[7]. We can claim that this description applies to the EU as well. So, the EU has to decide if it wants to be a global reference point for democracy? Will it continue to invest in the rule of law, equal opportunities, gender equality, free press, collaborative decision-making systems? This is slipping away, and the EU institutions seem to be weak in defending this pillar of democracy. In the current situation there is room to evolve the EU democracy further. Some of the options for the next development stage might be found in the empowering of the role of citizens, increasing the participatory engagement, strengthening the governance over the key pillars of sovereignty, making a narrative of the EU’s democracy story, while removing the traces of the British legacy. Then lead and become a true global voice of democracy

2.     Digitalisation

Digitalisation helped us to dramatically increase the number of connections with different subjects and objects through diversified communication channels, paving the way for receiving a huge amount of data and/or information at any given time of the day. With digital technologies came many discussions about »who is actually leading the world«, »who is creating our future«, »do we still have free will«, and above all, “who owns the data”. The citizens are trapped between 3 polarising global models: “all data are owned by a state”, “all data are owned by a corporation” and the EU model that deals with data from a perspective of the “users’ rights”.  Yet, the citizens are left out in the open without definition of accountability and stewardship over assets for the next generation. Taxpayers, paying for a large proportion of R&D, do not profit from that research and investments directly. In the best-case scenario, they get a chance to buy them[8] back in the form of products, services and solutions. On top of democratic digital architectures like the internet and blockchains, new global monopolies are being built, pushing towards a technology-based world. Ideas like transhumanism, singularity and surveillance capitalism are used as a new global framework to control and manipulate with ought democratic governance in the interest of users and citizens. This is a great opportunity for the EU to push for a global regulator based on the users’ rights to create a safe and secure digital environment for the users and service providers. 

3.     Climate change

Climate change is another shared challenge to human societies. Especially because of the lack of system approach and due to a narrow focus in our response to changes which on one hand are part of a natural Earth cycle, and on the other hand, are caused by humans speeding up the climate change process with pollution and overconsumption. The excessive use of the Earth’s resources and our misbehaviour brought us to the point that we are having a hard time to re-adjust. The Earth has seen many climate changes. However, the biggest difference in responding to climate change today compared to the past is that we can no longer move freely around the Planet. Today, all the land is claimed for, so any larger movement of people is associated with conflicts, destabilisation of societies, and even wars. So, for the first-time people are challenged to find adequate solutions for climate change at the place where they live. Such re-adjustments can only be built on a high level of solidarity, openness, collaboration and a shared vision for the Planet as a whole. The EU has experienced a double edge effect: on one hand a growing pollution due to the oil-based lifestyle, on the other hand more than 90% of all energy use was oil based, as well. So, in order to decrease the pollution, the EU needed to find a new, reliable energy source, possibly on home territory to decrease the vulnerability due to the fluctuation of the oil prices and the supply of oil. That was the major drive behind the green agenda, with additional positive social impacts like decrease of premature deaths due to the pollution, a new field for the burst of innovation and the creation of a higher value. The EU was the first global power to push for a green vision. It still has a chance to be among the most influential global green powers, however, it will have to move from projects to organisational redesign. In order to lead, the EU needs a system approach with the commitment to some painful organisational changes along the way.  

4.     Covid

Covid crisis is another example of a poor use of system science in problem solving, adding another dimension to the overall complexity of global relationships. On one hand it showed a strength and capacity to deliver on the global science community when focused on a common goal. Yet, it also showed how vulnerable multilateral global agreements and collaborations are in the face of immediate threat or provoked fear. The pandemic has revealed a dark side of many leaders, lacking the capacity to engage with citizens and respond to crises collectively, based on trust, transparency and overall well-being. I hope we have hear​t​ the lessons of the Covid crisis. These times are really calling upon every citizen to go deep into their hearts and hear the truth and the invitation to stand up for an open, inclusive, democratic world based on solidarity, collaboration and shared vision that could just possibly be a new civilisational paradigm[9]. The EU got trapped in a panic and fear at the beginning of crises, forgetting about the basic democratic principles, giving up on freedom of speech, the right for a second opinion. Political and scientific behaviour were no longer open for possible different approaches and explanations, for example, the impact of air conditioning on the spread of virus, how to protect the healthy, how to strengthen the natural immunity. It rather became a dogmatic approach to a crisis that nobody really understood. The EU is now in a unique position to take a holistic approach to pandemic management and build a resilient public health system which includes citizens in problem solving and effective response. The world will listen.

5.     Space

Space seems to be a new “wild west” territory, where billions of taxpayers and private money is being engaged with any global regulator overlooking the actions and negative externalities. As a consequence, space debris is rapidly becoming a serious problem, entrepreneurs and individual countries are passing laws to allow companies registered in their countries to mine asteroids and possibly planets in our galaxy. Nobody is monitoring what is happening to our stratosphere. In spite of the good intentions of space dreamers in the 20thcentury, countries have not signed a common declaration for space exploration and rather moved the completion to space. The focus is on business, exploitation, territorial possessions, but nothing about the socialisation and democratisation of space, shared vision, common action plan. I dare to speculate, that the technology as we know it today will not get us to other planets, nor will it make us immortal. We are yet to discover a new law of physics and see the unseen. However, we can say that people on Earth have already benefited largely from the knowledge and technologies being developed from space explorations: medicine, sensors, filters, food packaging, new materials, kitchen cloths, ect. The EU is finally repositioning itself in the space ecosystem. Our space agency along with a very strong entrepreneurial base has a capacity to influence the global space game, focusing on space explorations with intelligent instruments, strong data mining capacities and AI based simulation systems. Maybe we are the ones who will show a completely new way of travelling through the Universe. Another opportunity for a stronger autonomy yet integrated in a large open space with a strong global governing body that the EU can infuse.  

6.     Global repositioning of powers

In the face of all these global trends we are also seeing the repositioning of global powers. I expect in the near future there will be between 7 to 10 players with a fairly balanced global influence. It seems that traditional relationships where partnerships were able to hold in good and bad, might no longer exist. More and more partnerships are based on content, specific interests, emerged opportunities and long-term visions. Global actors are present in different subgroups pursuing different interests and focus with different partners. A good question is if the countries can survive this race? Corporations are trying their best to bring the countries under their wings of global dominance. The core power struggle is around the essentials for life like food, water, energy, talents, territories. If countries fail to create strong partnerships and focus on their core mission which is creating well-being for their citizens, they could simply disappear in the face of history. The EU has an advantage there. With a broad network of citizens’ participation and constant efforts to bring as many as possible on board for a participatory discussion, the EU is laying the foundation for a more sustainable mass engagement and mass innovation. And that is precisely it’s largest asset:  diversity and people. In the last 500 years the EU has been gaining its global influence with inventions, technologies, science, philosophy, literature, new visions and understandings. That is the spirit that the EU could represent – reinventing the future not to be squeezed only in the framework of new technologies, but rather in a new mind set, new vision of the world, influencing all levels of our existence based on multilateralism, inclusion and democratic values. 

Conclusion

The EU is a great example of diversity at its core in a sense of culture, history, climate, language, religion, politics, tradition. It is a place where many different ethnic groups throughout history have been seeking a safe place to continue to develop their ethnic roots. Such diversity is a fruitful field for high-end and mass innovation. It is to this diversity that we should be thankful for our strong immune system and ability to grasp the emergence of new. Our diversity is our strength to develop solutions for the world as well. The described topics could be the ones where the EU can potentially seek a greater level of autonomy.

There are many more areas, but I rather see them as a consequence than the source of autonomy, like finance, security, investments, artificial intelligence, etc. And as one pointed out, “strategic autonomy is not a magic wand but a process, a long-term one, intended to ensure that Europeans increasingly take charge of themselves. To defend our interests and values in an increasingly harsh world, a world that obliges us to rely on ourselves to guarantee our future.”[10]. Yet, I have to add one more time, autonomy does not mean isolation, so the previous sentence needs a continuation “… in a collaborative, democratic engagement with other countries and peoples of the planet Earth for the benefit of our future generation and of our own”. 

I have faith in the EU to find its role in the newly emerging world. As a promoter of democracy and hope it can evolve into a truly global soft power that is not endangering but rather fostering the world to thrive. 

[1] https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/

[2] local, regional, global, planetary; brands, lifestyle, political parties, religions, and many more. 

[3] Nature 1 = forests, waters, meadows, mountains: Nature 2 = cities, Nature 3 = augmented/virtual reality

[4] VUCA = Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous

[5] RUPT = Rapid, Unpredictable, Paradoxical, Tangled

[6] Post financial crisis, terrorism, refugees, Brexit, change in USA foreign policy, climate change, covid

[7] https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/chapters/the-global-state-of-democracy-2019-CH1.pdf

[8] pay again 

[9] www.ecocivilisation.eu is a global movement observing the global trends from a societal point of view building a system of leverage points to be used for the evaluation of the civilizational cycle and possible moderation of the transition towards a new civilizational paradigm 

[10] https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/89865/why-european-strategic-autonomy-matters_en