Source: Carnegie Europe

The European Union’s (EU’s) foreign policy remains weak and underdeveloped.  The overall international position of the EU has weakened in the ten years since the treaty’s signing. With its emphasis on soft power, preference for legal situations, and enthusiasm for multilateral diplomacy, the EU has had trouble adjusting to a multipolar world increasingly ruled by power politics.

  1. Member states decide on common foreign and security policy by unanimity and run their own national policy in parallel. These limitations compound the inherent problems of collective action by a large group of states, such as the diversity of interests, insufficient solidarity, free riding, and fragmented and weak leadership.
  2. The foreign policy establishments of the member states have been reluctant to give the EEAS the mandate and the resources needed to become the EU’s foreign ministry and the Commission jealously defended its own powers. Thus, the EEAS has turned into a kind of secretariat, interposed between the Council and the Commission with a weak institutional culture and limited buy-in from either side.
  3. On the global level, the EU continues to be one of the most important players in multilateral diplomacy e.g. Paris Agreement on climate change but as the powers and regions are gaining strength, the EU’s coherence is diminishing due to internal divisions and its overall position is eroding.
  4. With Brexit, the EU will now lose one of its strongest foreign policy players.
  5. The EU’s clout in the G7 and G20 and in international financial institutions is reduced due to divisions between EU institutions and the bigger member states.
  6. The EU has also failed to develop a coherent response to the rise of China. Competing interests of member states have allowed Beijing to play various parts of the EU off each other e.g. annual 16 + 1 summit of Central and Eastern European countries plus China.
  7. The EU has failed to develop a coherent policy towards Russia.
  8. The EU has been accustomed to operating as a junior partner to the United States in efforts to preserve the international order, but Donald Trump put an end to this tandem. The EU is too weak to assume the leadership role abandoned by Washington and in many respects still dependent on partnership with the United States.
  9. Member states might share a common goal, but also have divergent interests that get in the way, such as special relationships with outside powers, particularly regional interests, competition for economic gains or internal political constraints.
  10. Many member states have never had more than a regional foreign policy. Their political elites appreciate participating in EU discussions on important international developments. But when it comes to assuming responsibility for concrete actions, the societies they represent are often unprepared to face the costs and risks of operational engagement.
  11. Ministerial discussions in Brussels frequently suffer from a collective small state syndrome. The sum of national viewpoints and the willingness to take responsibility falls far short of the total potential of the union as an international actor.
  12. Any progress depends on the good will of every member state.
  13. The High Representative and the EEAS run the day-to-day operations in foreign policy but will rarely launch a major initiative without the backing of the bigger capitals.
  14. The informal leadership of the bigger member states plays a much greater role than the formal leadership from the EU institutions. Together, those member states possess the greater part of the EU’s overall diplomatic, military and intelligence resources, maintain extensive networks around the world and are present in the exclusive global clubs.
  15. While EU foreign policy is theoretically based on the sovereign equality of all twenty-seven members, size matters in the real world. The lead role of bigger countries is usually tolerated by the rest of the group as long as it is exercised with some degree of tact. Smaller countries can take a lead role when they have strong interests and expertise on an issue, but that does not happen very often.
  16. The contribution of bigger member states is often inconsistent and weak, because they assign primacy to their national foreign policy. Playing a prominent role on the internal stage is part of the national identities of countries like France, Germany and the UK, and partly also Italy and Spain. Their international action is thus not limited just about promoting interests or values, but equally about ensuring their rank in the world.
  17. The bigger member states engage when they can be seen to lead or when national interest necessitates the involvement of the EU as an influence multiplier, such a s decisions about sanctions. But often, they look at the EU as just another of the multilateral forums where they pursue their national foreign policy goals. Sometimes, they prefer to act individually, or in coalitions outside the EU framework, or to take an issue to another body. At other times, they remain passive or fail to reach agreement on a course of action, which paralyzes the EU as a whole.
  18. Such a fragmented leadership constellation is unlikely to result in a determined and consistent foreign policy. The various institutional and national leaders often operate at cross-purposes. Sometimes, no one steps up to the task. Decision-making is slow and negotiations tend to be booged down. When member states fail to achieve unanimity, the EU simply vanishes as a relevant actor. Even when initiatives are launched, they often lack sufficient follow-up. Declarations frequently take the place of action. And all of this exacerbates the EU’s collective action problem. In fact, no other factor explains more of the chronic underperformance of EU foreign policy than inadequate leadership.

The following four courses of action should be considered.

  1. Try and Try Again: It is unlikely that EU foreign policy can be saved through institutional fixes. i.e. having foreign policy decisions by qualified majority voting. However, it is very unlikely to happen. By accepting majority voting, member states would effectively subordinate their own national foreign policy to that of the EU, and only very few of them seem ready to do that. The real key to overcoming the EU’s collective action problems lies in strengthening mutual confidence and solidarity through a process of shared practical experience. The EU foreign policy muscle will only get stronger if it gets more exercise. Stepping up the level of activity through increased diplomatic initiatives and operational engagement is therefore the best way to become more effective. Only by ramping up its engagement can the EU overcome its current inertia and risk averseness and, over time, build a record of achievement that will in turn strengthen its confidence for further action.
  2. Reengage the Member States: As long as EU foreign policy runs parallel to national foreign policy, it will not enjoy the necessary buy-in from member states. National leaders will only behave as real stakeholders if there is a real and visible role for them at the EU level. The EU Council should therefore ask individual member states or groups of them with specific crisis management jobs or with taking the lead on particular regional policies or even thematic issues. Such burden-sharing between the institutions and the member states has been discussed before, but in practice it has been hampered by lack of trust and fear of loss of control. Mobilizing the vast diplomatic and operational assets of member states for common objectives could significantly strengthen the EU’s foreign policy. And giving member states direct responsibility in a way that can be appreciated by domestic audiences would also make the EU’s collective action problem more manageable. Undeniably, there are risks that the national interests of a country tasked with a particular mission will get mixed up with its action on behalf of the EU, but these can be mitigated through safeguards, such as the involvement of the EU institutions in such initiatives.
  3. Build alliances in support of global governance. The EU’s emphasis on soft power, its preference for legal solutions, and its enthusiasm for multilateral diplomacy are far more suited for building a liberal world order than for dealing with the vicissitudes of a world governed by power politics. For good reasons, the EU therefore remains strongly committed to safeguarding and developing rules-based cooperative structures ranging from trade to climate change to nonproliferation to migration management. The fact that this has become an uphill struggle today’s world means that the EU needs to try even harder. In a ‘nation first’ world, the EU has no future and its member states will pay a heavy price.  Fortunately, there are many other stakeholders in a functioning multilateral order, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and many developing countries. These countries- including China and India on certain issues see the EU as a crucial ally because, despite its recent setbacks, no other international player is better positioned to build alliances, for preserving and strengthening global governance. Developing the relevant networks and partnerships, and investing in the institutional architecture of global governance could well be the EU’s most urgent priority for the coming years. This would also require a continuing dialogue with the United States in order to minimize the damage and ensure early and constructive reengagement.
  4. Upgrade Lisbon: The Lisbon arrangements have serious design flaws but will remain the EU’s operating system for the foreseeable future. Their potential, however, could be much better used. The EU delegations, the military and civilian missions, and the relevant departments of the EEAS and the commission collectively possess greater expertise than many of the bigger member states. But this resource is at present dispersed among different institutions and not used in a cohesive way. Mobilizing this reservoir of know-how through better reporting systems, more information sharing, and greater capabilities for strategic analysis would greatly enhance the situational awareness of the EU and its member states. An improved understanding of international developments would also enhance the authority of the EU institutions and the credibility of their initiatives and thereby facilitate as much more proactive approach to policymaking.  

Action along these lines will not produce miracles. Under the best circumstances, EU foreign and security policy will remain a work in progress for some time. However, after a long period of stagnation, there is now a real opportunity to strengthen EU foreign policy. In light of the serious challenges in the neighborhood and on the global level, this opportunity must not be missed.




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