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The European UnionHow does it work?

The European Union: How does it work? (6th edn)

Daniel Kenealy, Amelia Hadfield, Richard Corbett, and John Peterson
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p. 1878. The EU as a Global Actorlocked

p. 1878. The EU as a Global Actorlocked

  • Niklas Helwig


The EU’s ambitions to be a global power are a surprising by-product of European integration. Students of European foreign policy mostly focus on EU trade, aid, and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). But the national foreign policy activities of its member states cannot be neglected. On most economic issues, the EU is able to speak with a single voice. It has more difficulty showing solidarity on aid policy but is powerful when it does. The Union’s external policy aspirations now extend to traditional foreign and security policy. But distinct national policies persist, and the EU suffers from fragmented leadership. The chapter begins by considering the development of EU foreign policy and then considers how a national system of foreign policies exists alongside EU policies in the area of trade and international development. It then examines the EU’s CFSP and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).


The EU’s ambitions to be a global power are a surprising by-product of European integration. Students of European foreign policy mostly focus on EU trade, aid, and the CFSP. But the extensive national foreign policy activities of its member states cannot be neglected. On most economic issues, the EU is able to speak with a genuinely single voice. It has more difficulty showing solidarity on aid policy, but is powerful when it does. The Union’s external policy aspirations even extend to traditional foreign and security policy. But here, distinct national policies persist and the EU suffers from weak or fragmented leadership. Debates about European foreign policy tend to be about whether the glass is half full—with the EU more active globally than ever before—or half empty, and mainly about disappointed expectations.

8.1p. 188 Introducing European Foreign Policy

Jean Monnet once described European integration as a ‘key step towards the organization of tomorrow’s world’ (quoted in Jørgensen 2006: 521). Yet, Monnet and the other founders of the original EC had little if any ambition to create a new kind of international power. In fact, the EC was initially given explicit external powers only to assist former European colonies in Africa and conduct international trade negotiations, since a common market with a customs union could not, by definition, exist without a common trade policy. Ultimately, both policies produced considerable political spillover, with international consequences for Europe. A commitment (demanded by France) in the Treaty of Rome to offer a small amount of foreign aid, and work towards a free trade area with sub-Saharan African states ultimately evolved into a full-blown political ‘partnership’ with no fewer than 79 partners forming the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) by 2020. As for trade policy, spirited debates ensued almost immediately after the founding of the EC: trade agreements with whom? Should sanctions be imposed on oppressive or aggressive states? Member states soon felt the need to complement trade policy (and the external faces of other EC policies) with political criteria laid down in what was at first a separate, informal framework of ‘political cooperation’, and then later became a formal treaty objective of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

The EU now aspires to be a global power: a major international actor that can, like the US or China, influence developments anywhere in the world, by drawing on its full range of economic, political, and security instruments. As Youngs puts it, ‘powerful international challenges and crises have driven an evolution in EU external action’ (2021: 4). The EU has often had to step up to challenges, reacting to an ever-changing external environment with new institutional structures and policy instruments. The 2010s and early 2020s have been a particularly turbulent period in international politics, creating new pressures on the EU to adapt or even change its approach to the world beyond its borders. However, the EU remains a strange and often ineffective global actor. Distinctive national foreign policies endure in Europe and show few signs of disappearing. Equally, the notion of ‘European foreign policy’, comprising all of what both the EU and its member states do in world politics, collectively or not, has gained prominence (Hill et al. 2017).

Debates about European foreign policy can be of the glass half-full or half-empty variety. To illustrate, the EU has on the one hand used enlargement as a tool of foreign policy to transform dramatically the regions to its east and south (see section 9.3). The Union is also an economic superpower that packs a real punch in international trade negotiations, and as a major development aid donor. It has gradually developed its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) for crisis management and humanitarian intervention. On the other hand, the EU suffers from chronic problems of disunity, incoherence, and weak leadership. European foreign policy can be undermined by all manner of rivalries: among its member governments, between EU institutions, and between them and national foreign ministries. The EU was p. 189entirely side-lined during the 2003 war in Iraq because it could not come remotely close to agreeing a common policy (see Peterson 2004). The EU also remained unable to respond effectively when the Libyan dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi, threatened to instigate a bloodbath against his own people in 2011 (see Box 8.2). And it stood by almost helplessly as Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014 (see Box 8.5). Even when it can agree on a common policy, the EU relies overwhelmingly on its member states for the resources to execute it.

Sometimes, the same international event or issue can be used to defend either the glass half-full or the glass half-empty thesis in terms of the EU’s response. Consider the dramatic developments of 2016, when the UK voted to leave the EU in a referendum and Donald Trump, an outspoken sceptic of globalization, free trade, and multilateral cooperation, was elected US President. The broader transatlantic structure is a key pillar of the EU integration project and the uncertain future of the relationship with both the UK (arising from Brexit) and the US made its foundation shakier than ever. As the UK—with its foreign policy expertise and military power—prepared to leave the EU and the US administration grew tired of being a ‘cheerleader’ for European integration, Europe surely stood to lose global influence or even to face a ‘process of disintegration’ (Kundnani 2017). However, as the decade came to a close, the EU remained in search of a new and positive narrative for its role in an increasingly competitive international environment. European Council President Charles Michel argued in 2020 that ‘European strategic autonomy (Box 8.1) is goal number one for our generation’ (Michel 2020), describing the EU’s ambition to be more self-reliant in defending its interests and values amid global transformations.

8.1.1 How it developed

The EU’s international ambitions have their origins in the 1960s. In particular, American disregard for European preferences in Vietnam and the Middle East presented European countries with incentives to defend their interests collectively, and thus more effectively, in foreign policy. According to a logic known as the ‘politics of scale’, the whole—the EU speaking and acting as one—is more powerful than the sum of its parts, or member states acting individually (Ginsberg 2001).

By 1970, a loose intergovernmental framework, European Political Cooperation (EPC), was created to try to coordinate national foreign policies (see section 2.3.3). Linked to but independent of the EC, EPC was very much dominated by national foreign ministers and ministries—member governments identified where their national interests overlapped but without any pretension to a ‘common’ foreign policy. The European Commission was little more than an invited guest, and the Parliament was largely excluded.

Nonetheless, EPC successfully fostered consensus on difficult issues in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Arab–Israeli conflict, apartheid in South Africa, and relations with the Soviet bloc (through what became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE—Box 8.1). Europe was mostly limited to p. 190saying things—issuing diplomatic démarches—instead of doing things. But increasingly it backed up its EPC positions with EC actions by using economic aid or sanctions (which, for instance, were applied to Argentina during the Falklands War). EPC’s perceived successes led to claims that the EC could become a ‘civilian power’ (Galtung 1973). That is, the EC could emerge as an alternative to the two Cold War superpowers: it would uphold multilateralism, liberalism, and human rights, and advocate peaceful conflict resolution. EPC was given treaty status and formally linked to the activities of the Community in the 1986 SEA.

Yet, the geopolitical earthquakes that shook Europe beginning in 1989 fundamentally exposed EPC as too weak to foster collective action. The idea of strengthening European foreign policy cooperation in a new ‘political union’ was only gradually given impetus by the dramatic external transitions in CEE, the Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and war in Yugoslavia. Thus, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty grafted onto the EC a new CFSP (Box 8.1), a framework that allowed member states to formulate, decide, and represent European policies collectively to the outside world. Over the following decades, the EU developed institutions and instruments to try to make its foreign policy coherent and effective. One major addition to its toolbox in the early 2000s was a CSDP (Box 8.1), under which member states contributed troops to civilian and military missions under an EU flag. Nevertheless, debates about whether and how effectively the EU was able to contribute to regional and global stability persisted, and continue today.

Box 8.1 Key concepts and terms

The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) was created by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty as a successor to the EPC mechanism. It has been revised by successive new treaties and given a Brussels-based Political and Security Committee (PSC) to prepare foreign ministers’ meetings and (by Lisbon) a ‘new look’ high representative and the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) blue bold was created in 1999 to engage in the so-called ‘Petersberg tasks’ (named after a German castle where an earlier summit devoted to defence had been held): humanitarian and rescue missions, peacekeeping, crisis management, and the vaguely specified task of ‘peacemaking’.

The European Defence Fund (EDF) is a financial tool managed by the European Commission which for the first time allocated €8 billion to defence-related research and development between 2021 and 2027. The aim is to foster synergies and interoperability between the still fragmented national European defence industries.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) blue bold was established by the Lisbon Treaty and became active in 2010. It works under the authority of the high representative and brings under one roof EU (Commission and Council) and national officials, including diplomats. The EEAS’s task is to assist the high representative in implementing the CFSP and other areas of EU foreign policy.

The European Intervention Initiative (EI2)—an idea from French President Macron in September 2017—is a joint military project that stands outside existing structures such as NATO and the EU. It aims to forge a common strategic culture among participating states, enhancing their ability to act together in NATO and EU missions. To date, 13 states (including Norway and the UK outside of the EU) are participating.

Many of the current EU foreign and security policy debates refer to the concept of European Strategic Autonomy. The notion first emerged in the 1990s to signal Europe’s ambition to acquire military capacities for missions independent from the US. Lately, the great power rivalry between the US and China (including trade competition) and the COVID-19 pandemic have also led to calls for more economic self-sufficiency and increased assertiveness on global trade matters.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) brings together 57 (as of 2021) states from Europe and beyond in what is the world’s largest regional security organization. It claims to take a ‘comprehensive approach to security’, extending especially to human rights. The OSCE works on the basis of unanimity and its decisions are politically, not legally, binding.

PESCO—the Permanent Structured Cooperation—is a CSDP framework that allows groups of EU member states (and under certain conditions also third-party states) to cooperate on joint defence projects. First initiated in 2017, member states joined forces on close to 60 projects (and counting) of different sizes to create capabilities from enhanced military mobility to specific weapon systems.

The Political and Security Committee (PSC) (sometimes referred to under the French acronym COPS) is an ambassador-level working group of the Council that prepares the strategy and policy choices in the CSDP and ensures the political control of crisis management missions.

8.1.2p. 191 The basics

The EU aspires to international power for two basic reasons. First, even the Union’s largest states are medium-sized powers compared to, say, the US or China. All European states, especially smaller ones, seek to use the EU as a ‘multiplier’ of their power and influence. There is controversy about whether the Union is a truly global, as opposed to a regional, power (Orbie 2009; Krotz 2009). However, its largest member states—France, Germany, and Italy (all part of the Group of 7 (G7))—give the Union a ‘pull towards the global perspective which many of the other member states simply do not have as part of their foreign policy traditions’ (Hill 2006: 67). The loss of the UK’s input and military weight is troubling for the bloc’s global status, even though it still remains to be seen how London will be associated with the EU’s international activities post-Brexit (see section 10.2.3).

Second, the Union’s international weight increases each time that it enlarges or expands its competence. The 13 countries that joined after 2004 were all (besides Poland) small and (mostly) pro-American states with limited foreign p. 192policy ambitions. Joining the EU, however, allowed each of them to make their voice heard on issues such as relations with Russia or trade policy, while making the Union itself a potentially more powerful player on these and other international issues. Meanwhile, the EU has accumulated new foreign policy tools, such as the CSDP. The EU also created, via the Lisbon Treaty, new figures to more effectively represent the Union externally: a ‘permanent’ European Council president and a high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy who is also a Commission vice-president (see section 3.4). Moreover, Lisbon established the EEAS (Box 8.1), potentially a nascent EU foreign ministry. Whatever institutions it creates, the EU is powerful internationally above all because it presides over and regulates the world’s largest single market of almost 450 million consumers, around 40 per cent more than the US (Bradford 2020).

Still, European foreign policy is hindered by three basic gaps. The first gap is between the EU’s own task expansion, which has been considerable, and the integration of its authority, which has been—at least prior to Lisbon—limited. Even before the creation of the EEAS, the total number of European diplomatic staff worldwide (EU plus national officials) was more than 40,000 diplomats in 1,500 missions. Yet, no single authority could give orders to this disparate collection of officials. No one claimed that the US—with around 15,000 staff in 300 missions (Nutter 2020)—was weaker because it was so outnumbered.

The new high representative was given authority over the EEAS, which at least promised to give the Union a figure who could direct the EU’s own diplomatic corps, which had often proved impossible in the past. However, in the first years after its establishment the EEAS struggled to ‘demonstrate its relevance and added value’ (Balfour and Raik 2012: 25). The high representative was criticized for providing weak leadership (Helwig 2015). Those who see ‘the EU as a global actor’ glass as half full noted that the new foreign policy machinery started to run more smoothly once the initial turf wars between EU institutions over their power in the post-Lisbon set-up receded (Blockmans and Wessel 2021).

The second gap—between the EU’s economic power and its political weakness—is a related but separate problem. The EU manages to defend its interests on matters of ‘low politics’—economic, trade, and (less often) monetary issues—with a more or less single voice. External trade policy is made mostly via the more integrated OLP (see Figure 5.1), which delegates considerable power to the Union’s institutions and involves the Council acting by qualified majority. The EU also commands significant resources in aid and development policy. It has also emerged as a potentially major power in international environmental diplomacy, especially with regards to climate protection. With the adoption of the European Green Deal in 2019, the EU reiterated its commitment to advocate globally for carbon neutral policies through its diplomacy and—more controversially—through its trade and development cooperation instruments (Grimm et al. 2021).

In contrast, the EU often fails to speak as one on matters of traditional diplomacy, or ‘high politics’, which touch most directly on national sovereignty, prestige, or vital interests. In this realm, most Council decisions must be unanimous. p. 193The CFSP—created by the Maastricht Treaty—was meant to cover ‘all aspects of foreign and security policy’. However, there is no single EU foreign policy in the sense of one that replaces or eliminates national policies. In contrast to (say) EU trade policy, the CFSP instead relies overwhelmingly on intergovernmental consensus. This model of decision-making is especially engrained in the CSDP, where it remains difficult to envisage member states ever delegating to the EU the power to decide life and death questions, such as whether to contribute military force to a ‘hot’ conflict or war. In short, the gap between the EU’s economic power and political weight endures largely because the supranational procedures remain more efficient and decisive than the intergovernmental CFSP system.

The third—and final—gap is between the world’s expectations of the EU and its capacity to meet them (Hill 1998). In the early days of the post-Cold War period, European foreign policy-makers often oversold the Union’s ability to act quickly or resolutely in international affairs. More than two decades later, the EU has a more realistic assessment of its impact on global stability and prosperity. Nevertheless, when Ursula von der Leyen took office as President of the European Commission in 2019, she put a clear emphasis on the need for the EU to tackle global challenges. To do so, she vowed to head a ‘geopolitical Commission’ (von der Leyen 2019) with an eye on tackling the global climate crisis—through the introduction of a European Green Deal—and managing the digital transformation, along with its economic and security implications. The first significant reality test came soon after, with the COVID-19 pandemic, when the EU struggled to meet expectations in coordinating the procurement and distribution of vaccines across the continent and to provide a solid contribution to global containment efforts (see section 10.3.1).

These three gaps—between task expansion and integration, economic unity and political division, and capabilities and expectations—all contribute to a general mismatch between aspirations and accomplishments. To understand the persistence of these mismatches, we need to unpack European foreign policy and consider it as the product of three distinct but interdependent systems of decision-making:

the national system of foreign policies;

the supranational system focused on economic policy; and

the intergovernmental CFSP (including, with special provisions, the CSDP).

These three systems remain distinct even if there is considerable overlap between them (see Table 8.1). For example, while the EU has exclusive competence on trade matters, development cooperation is a shared competence between national capitals and Brussels. The CFSP is governed under special institutional provisions that ensure decisions are mostly taken between member state governments. Overlaps between the EU’s external policy systems are, however, rife. Europe is the world’s largest foreign aid donor, but only when the disparate and largely uncoordinated contributions of the Union and its member states are added together. EU environmental policy follows the supranational OLP, but competences are shared with member states. Even though the EU’s own diplomatic network contributed to the p. 194efforts to reach a deal, the landmark Paris Climate Agreement was pushed primarily by French leadership. Leadership of the CFSP sometimes falls to subgroups of member states. An important example is the so-called ‘E3’, a configuration in which France, Germany, and the UK (now no longer a member state of the EU) initiated Europe’s nuclear diplomacy towards Iran. However, the high representative soon started to lead the delegation that also included China, Russia, and the US (the ‘E3+3’)—in another case of intersecting systems.

Table 8.1 European foreign policy: Three systems


Key characteristic

Location (or treaty basis)

Primary actors

Policy example


Loose (or no) coordination

Outside EU’s structures

National ministers and ministries

War in Iraq


Some coordination of national and EU efforts

Coordination with EU with nuances (no funds from EU budget)

National ministers and ministries, EEAS, Commission

Paris Climate Agreement, European Green Deal


EU usually speaks with single voice

Articles 205–22 TFEU

Commission and Council

Commercial (trade) policy, e.g. EU–Canada Trade deal


Turf battles (worst case), use of economic instruments for political ends

Article 29 TEU and Article 215 TFEU

Council and Commission

Economic sanctions policy, e.g. against Russia since 2014


‘Common, not single’ policy

Articles 21–46 TEU

High representative; national ministers and ministries (especially of large states)

Nuclear diplomacy towards Iran

Such overlaps reflect how high and low politics often blur together. Disputes arising from Europe’s dependence on Russia for energy, or the tendency of Chinese exporters to flood European markets, can impact vital national interests and preoccupy diplomats and governments at the highest political levels. Meanwhile, the EU has a considerable track record in security and defence policy, which might be viewed as the ultimate expression of high politics. Blurred boundaries between both policy realms and systems for decision-making make European foreign policy, p. 195in its totality, an elusive subject that is far more difficult to ‘source’ or study than the foreign policy of sovereign states.

8.2 The National ‘System’ of Foreign Policies

Distinctive national foreign policies have not disappeared from Europe, even if the EU has become a more important reference point. France uses the EU to try to enhance its own foreign policy leadership of a Europe that is autonomous from the US (Rieker 2017). Germany has wrapped its postwar foreign policy in a European cloak in order to rehabilitate itself as an international power (Bulmer and Paterson 2019). Only recently has Berlin taken steps to put its political weight on a par with its economic power (Helwig and Siddi 2020). Small states have considerably ‘Europeanized’ their foreign policies (Tonra 2001; Gross 2009; Hadfield et al. 2017) and rely on the EU to have a voice in debates dominated by large states. But all EU member states also conduct their own, individual, national foreign policy.

Whether national foreign policies in Europe form a true ‘system’, they are notable for:

their endurance;

their continued centrality to European foreign policy; and

their frequent resistance to coordination.

The logic of foreign policy coordination differs markedly from the logic of market integration. Integrating markets often involves negative integration (e.g. removing barriers to trade) and separate national policies can be tolerated as long as they do not impede free movement. A common foreign policy more often requires positive integration, with new EU institutions and structures potentially replacing national ones. If all member states do not agree on a specific foreign policy, then it is hard to say that the EU has a common policy at all. Defenders of Europe’s system of foreign policy coordination concede that Europe lacks a single foreign policy. However, they insist that the EU itself usually has a common foreign policy that member states can often represent more effectively in bilateral formats or as part of contact groups (Grevi et al. 2020). Each member state plays to its strengths and contributes policy resources to a (more or less) common cause. From this perspective, all member states increasingly tend to respect common EU policies and procedures.

Critics counterclaim that the war in Iraq showed how easily the EU can be marginalized on matters of high politics. Decisions on whether to support the war were almost entirely made in national EU capitals, not Brussels. Similarly in the case of the Libyan crisis in 2011, the decision to launch a robust military intervention took place mostly outside the EU framework (see Box 8.2). Nation states have long been primary sources of European foreign policy. They remain so, and this picture is unlikely to change any time soon.

Box 8.2 How it really works: The EU and the Middle East and North African region

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, the EU has been confronted with crises in the Southern Mediterranean, from the Sahel region to Syria. A record level of refugees in Europe and increased human trafficking from African shores were among the fallouts.

The Union’s response to the 2011 Libyan crisis was widely criticized for being slow, incoherent, and ineffective. The first major post-Lisbon Treaty crisis began with high expectations that the EU could deliver a decisive response. While member states eventually agreed on the need for Libyan dictator Gaddafi to cede power, they remained at odds on the use of military force. Germany refused to support a UN Security Council Resolution (1973) authorizing the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya, abstaining on the vote and withdrawing its military assets once NATO military action began. Although France and the UK eventually took the lead in implementing the no-fly zone, the NATO operation relied heavily on US military assets. Critics argued that the EU’s defence policy—and the CFSP more generally—‘died in Libya’. Optimists saw the Libyan crisis as a lesson learned and an opportunity to address existing flaws and obstacles.

While Europe decided to act together with the US in Libya, it was a bystander in the war in Syria, which developed into a proxy war that involved the US, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Europe’s humanitarian efforts were laudable, as donations by the EU and its member states reached almost €10 billion in 2017. Yet, the region was destined to remain a challenge for the EU for decades to come.

The biggest immediate challenge was the arrival of millions of refugees via the Western Balkans and Mediterranean, with a peak in 2015. Following the EU’s failure to agree on a system to share refugees from the main arrival countries, Greece and Italy—as well as the preferred destination, Germany—the Union focused on strengthening its outer borders. Deals with transit countries, including with difficult partners such as Turkey, Chad, Niger, and Libya, and an increase in military naval operations on the Mediterranean Sea were criticized for jeopardizing European values, while failing to address the root causes of migration.

8.3p. 196 The Supranational System

The supranational system for foreign policy-making consists of three main elements: external trade policy; aid and development policy; and the external dimension of internal policies, not least the internal market.

8.3.1 Commercial (trade) policy

The EU is the world’s largest exporter of goods and services, as well as the biggest export destination for about 80 countries. It accounts for more than one-fifth of all global trade, and claims a higher share than the US. The EU is sometimes portrayed as a champion of a liberal trade policy, which emphasizes the benefits of free trade p. 197(Young and Peterson 2014). Yet, all trading blocs discriminate against outsiders. As a result of the mounting US-China trade rivalry—and the exposed supply chain vulnerabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic—further measures to protect critical European industries are under discussion (Tocci 2021). The EU is also considering imposing an extra ‘tariff’ on imported goods with a high carbon footprint. This more protectionist and strategic trade policy—oriented towards advancing the EU’s interests and values—marks a notable change for an EU that traditionally pioneered the global free trade agenda (Youngs 2021: 74).

In practice, the EU is a trading power that must reconcile different national traditions of political economy (Young and Peterson 2014). Generally, its Southern member states are less imbued with free trade values than those in the north or east. One consequence is that it is sometimes more difficult for the EU to reach agreement on trade policy priorities internally than it is for it to subsequently agree trade deals externally with its partners. While the power of the Commission in trade policy is easy to overestimate, the EU does a remarkably good job of reconciling internal national differences on trade, which in turn allow international negotiations to become far more efficient, allowing the EU to negotiate with the clout that comes with being the world’s largest market. There is also capacity in the supranational system for shaming reluctant states into accepting trade agreements that serve general EU foreign policy interests. For example, in 2001 the Union agreed to offer the world’s poorest countries duty-free and quota-free access to the EU’s markets for ‘everything but arms’ (see Faber and Orbie 2009), which France opposed but eventually agreed to accept. The EU offers the world’s poorest countries a better deal than do most industrialized countries.

Europe increasingly finds itself facing fierce economic competition from emerging states such as China, India, and Brazil that have maintained higher economic growth rates than the EU in recent years, as well as from other regional trading blocs such as the US–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA, which replaced NAFTA). In the circumstances, EU trade policy has been accused of becoming aggressive, reactive, and defensive. The EU (and US) shouldered much of the blame for the breakdown of the Doha Development Round of world trade talks in 2008 (even though the obduracy of emerging states was at least as much to blame; see Young and Peterson 2014: 94). With multilateral trade negotiations at an impasse, the EU has sought bilateral preferential trade agreements (PTAs).

Since the Doha stalemate, the EU has agreed free trade deals with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Latin American Mercosur group (even though the deal is stuck in the ratification process), Singapore, Canada, and—controversially—Ukraine. The preliminary deal on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China was also hotly debated. While less ambitious than the EU’s other trade deals, the investment pact with Beijing raised questions regarding where the EU might position itself in the growing competition between the US and China. It was also criticized in light of Beijing’s poor human rights track record, in particular the treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

p. 198Despite being close allies, the EU and the US have been unable to conclude the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—an agreement designed to promote trade and multilateral economic growth—even though TTIP was premised on creating significant economic growth on both sides. Although President Trump was particularly aggressive in his opposition to free trade agreements, it is hard to see how a comprehensive trade pact could be agreed even under President Joe Biden. While Biden promised closer cooperation with the EU on a range of international challenges—not least on climate protection—he continued the more protectionist trade policy of his predecessor, a policy that shields American jobs and industries from global competition. On top of that, the staunch resistance to more liberalized trade deals among highly motivated elements of European civil society make it likely that we will see, at best, modest steps on transatlantic trade liberalization, such as a closer cooperation on technological standards and a limited trade agreement on industrial goods.

Besides the strong focus on bilateral trade, the EU has recently increased its efforts to promote reforms of the WTO. On the one hand, the EU is focused on ensuring that some of the WTO’s core functions—such as handling the resolution of trade disputes between states—can continue after attempts by the Trump administration to paralyse them. On the other hand, the EU proposed sweeping reforms, designed to address Chinese trade-distorting practices in particular (Young 2020: 79).

An interesting question for students of European foreign policy to consider is how often the EU uses its economic power in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. In the last decade, the EU became more assertive in using its economic power for political objectives, applying far-reaching sanctions on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions and to put a price tag on Russian aggressions towards Ukraine (Helwig et al. 2020). The same can be said for the PTAs the Union has agreed with developing countries and states on its borders as part of its Neighbourhood Policy (see section 9.3).

Still, EU trade policy structures and behaviour challenge the idea of Europe as a ‘civilian power’ that promotes its principles through its external economic activities. The treaty states that trade policy ‘shall be conducted in the context of the principles and objectives of the Union’s external action’ (Article 207 TFEU). But responsibility is left in the hands of the commissioner for trade, not the high representative. Damro (2014) characterizes the EU as ‘Market Power Europe’: an EU that defends its economic interests aggressively in individual trade disputes with little regard for broader foreign policy objectives. A less charitable portrayal is that of ‘Parochial Global Europe’ (Young and Peterson 2014) wherein the EU’s preoccupation with its own internal politics and policies, and staunch defence of its economic interests, hamper the Union’s attempts to play a global role. It remains to been seen whether the EU’s increased external economic activities—for example, to promote WTO reform or to advance the climate protection or human rights agendas through trade instruments—signify sustainable efforts to use its economic power in pursuit of political objectives.

8.3.2p. 199 Aid and development

The EU and its member states spend around €50 billion annually on overseas development aid (ODA), or over half of the global total. Aid and access to the Union’s huge market are frequently combined, along with other policy instruments, as in the cases of the EU’s free trade agreements with Mexico and South Africa, or the 2000 Cotonou Agreement agreed with African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) states. Market access or aid also may be part of wider political cooperation agreements designed to promote democracy or human rights. The EU’s relations with its most important neighbours—such as Turkey, Ukraine, or Russia (see Box 8.5)—are usually conducted through complex package deals combining trade, aid, and political dialogue.

The Union also has become the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid through the EC Humanitarian Office (ECHO)—now known as the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations—based within the Commission. The department focuses on the provision of overseas humanitarian aid and civil protection, with the aim of saving and preserving life for individuals, communities, and populations affected by either human-made crises or natural disasters. Through ECHO, the EU contributed more relief than any other donor after the 2004 Asian Tsunami and 2010 Pakistani floods. Using the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, the EU stepped up its global assistance in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, through the shipment of medical equipment to hard-hit regions. The EU (alongside its member states) was also one of the biggest contributors to the global Covax vaccine initiative with a total contribution of €2.2 billion.

Over the decades, the EU had developed a complex system of different financial instruments to assist and cooperate with partner countries in its neighbourhood and beyond. The clutter of financial tools, priorities, and management structures became ineffective and difficult to steer without the help of a coherent strategy. As part of the negotiations of the seven-year long-term EU budget (or MFF in EU-speak), member states agreed on a complete overhaul and simplification of the EU partnership instruments. The new roughly €80-billion-weight Neighbourhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) brings most of the financial instruments for partner countries around the world under one roof. Whether the institutional overhaul will be enough to make the EU’s development cooperation fit for the more competitive 21st century remains to be seen, especially as the EU lost the UK (one of the big players in this field).

8.3.3 Externalizing internal policies

In a sense, the EU has no exclusively internal policies: its market is so huge that every decision it makes to regulate it (or not) has international effects—the so-called ‘Brussels effect’ (Bradford 2020). When the EU legislates for the safety of chemicals on its market—including how they are tested, classified, packaged, and labelled—producers across the world have to adapt to it if they want to sell in the world’s p. 200largest market. That in turn often incentivizes other countries to adopt the same rules for their own market. This effect has also been noted in other fields, such as data privacy, consumer health and safety, environmental protection, antitrust, and even online hate speech.

A rule of thumb, based on a landmark ECJ decision (see Weiler 1999: 171–83), is that where the EU has legislated internally, a corresponding external policy competence for that matter is transferred to it. The EU has frequently taken this route in environmental policy, and now participates in several international environmental agreements. Where internal lines of authority are clear, the EU can be a strong and decisive negotiator. Its extraordinary commercial power sometimes makes headlines, for example, when Apple was accused of accepting an illegal tax deal in Ireland worth €13 billion. When the Union seeks bilateral economic agreements, whether with China, Canada, or Cameroon, the Commission negotiates for the Union as a whole.

The Union’s most important international task may be reconciling rules on its single market with rules governing global trade. The EU sometimes tackles this task poorly, producing messy compromises on issues such as data protection or genetically modified foods that enrage its trading partners. When the EU legislates, external considerations can be a low priority, treated as someone else’s problem. Most of the time, however, the internal market has offered non-EU producers better or similar terms of access than they were offered before the internal market existed (Young and Peterson 2014: 150).

Meanwhile, EU enlargement or the mere prospect of accession has been widely hailed as an effective tool of European foreign policy, in terms of exporting both security and prosperity (Nugent 2004; Smith 2017). However, it has also produced enlargement fatigue and rising concerns in longstanding member states about migration from less developed newcomers. One result has been the European Neighbourhood Policy (see section 9.3), a framework for cooperation with states on or near EU borders, such as Ukraine or Belarus, which, in the Brussels jargon, do not have the ‘perspective’ of membership any time soon. It is difficult to see how the powerful lure of actual membership could ever come close to being replicated by a policy that forecloses that possibility.

8.4 The CFSP and the CSDP

The gap between the Union’s growing economic power and its limited political clout was a source of increasing frustration in the early 1990s. Thus, a distinct system of making foreign policy was created with the CFSP at its centre. This new system overlapped with but did not replace the supranational system. Over time, it incorporated a CSDP.

The CFSP unveiled in the Maastricht Treaty marked a considerable advance on the EPC mechanism. But it still disappointed proponents of closer foreign policy cooperation (see Box 8.3). The CFSP gave the Commission the right—shared with p. 201member governments—to initiate proposals. It even allowed for limited QMV, although it was always clear that most actions would require unanimity. Compliance mechanisms in the CFSP were not as strong as those on community matters, with the CJEU mostly excluded. The CFSP remained largely intergovernmental, although links to the Community system gradually were strengthened.

Box 8.3 How it really works: Making foreign policy decisions

The CFSP remains clearly subject to different rules and procedures from the other activities of the EU. In particular, unanimity remains the norm. While QMV on foreign policy was possible after the Maastricht Treaty, it was rarely used on matters that touched on important national interests. The glass thus remained half empty as nearly all important CFSP decisions required a consensus. Because it could not agree a unanimous position on Iraq (far from it), the EU was completely sidelined during the drift to war in 2003. After 13 countries joined the Union between 2004 and 2013, foreign policy by unanimity seemed even more impractical, if not impossible. Procedurally, it is clear how the CFSP works. Substantively, there is controversy about whether it works at all. In many crucial diplomatic negotiations of recent years, the EU was represented (only) through its member states, if at all, such as during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire or the Astana process on peace in Syria that commenced in 2017.

Or perhaps the glass is half full. As a consequence of the continuing destabilization efforts of Russia in Ukraine, the EU was able to agree a comprehensive sanctions regime against one of its largest trading partners. Unanimous decisions are difficult to agree, but they also send a strong message that the EU stands united. The EU’s diplomacy (through the ‘EU-3+3’) on Iran, its participation in the Middle East Quartet (on an equal footing with the US, Russia, and the UN), a range of actions in central Africa and the Balkans, and the (slow) maturation of the Lisbon foreign policy machinery suggest, for optimists, a steady integration of European foreign policy. Calls for more QMV in limited areas of the CFSP grew louder in recent years, as some member states (Cyprus, for example) deliberately blocked decisions to strong-arm other member states on unrelated matters.

The 1997 Amsterdam Treaty’s main foreign policy innovation was the creation of a high representative for the CFSP (who also served, initially, as the secretary-general of the Council—see section 3.4). The high representative was meant to help give the EU a single voice and the CFSP a single face. After his appointment to the post in 1999, former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana at times proved a skilful coordinator. Still, this was only a partial answer to the legendary (and apparently apocryphal) question asked by the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in the 1970s: ‘What number do I call when I want to speak to “Europe”?’.

It was also in the late 1990s that the EU took its first cautious steps into security and defence. Europe’s two major military powers—France and the UK—kick-started EU military cooperation at a 1998 summit in St Malo. With the Bosnian crisis a recent memory and the Kosovo crisis still to come, EU heads of p. 202state and government formally launched (what became) the CSDP at the 1999 Cologne summit. Given the CFSP’s mixed record, as well as Europe’s claims to be a civilian power, it seemed paradoxical to extend the EU system into the realm of defence. Most EU states had long accepted the supremacy of NATO on defence matters. Yet, the 1999 Kosovo crisis marked a turning point.

The EU appeared timid and weak as it had earlier in Bosnia. NATO took the lead in pushing both crises towards resolution, and the US military contributions dwarfed those of Europe. Thus, the EU responded with firmer commitments in the Treaty of Nice, which marked out the so-called Petersberg tasks—humanitarian and rescue missions, peacekeeping, and crisis management—as basic EU foreign policy goals. A new PSC (known by its French acronym COPS—Box 8.1) of senior national officials was created and designated the linchpin linking CSDP to the CFSP. The EU was also given its own Military Committee and crisis management unit. After 2001, for the first time, military officers were seen at work in the EU’s Council building.

Since its first military intervention in the Bunia region of Congo in 2002, the EU has launched over 30 civilian and military missions on three different continents (see Figure 8.1). Most—around two-thirds—have been purely civilian missions that channelled development aid or sent law enforcement officers or advisors, as opposed to military forces, to troubled regions.

p. 203The 2009 Lisbon Treaty brought further significant changes to the EU’s foreign policy architecture (see Box 8.3). The treaty introduced a new model high representative who combines the role of the previous high representative with that of the commissioner for external affairs. The high representative serves as a vice-president of the Commission and chairs Council meetings of foreign ministers and defence ministers, in perhaps the most audacious attempt ever to combine the supranational with the intergovernmental in one position. The first post-Lisbon HR/VP, Catherine Ashton, spent most of her first year in post (2010) navigating a minefield of institutional bickering between the Commission, Council, and Parliament about the precise composition of the EEAS. While Ashton proved to be a skilful negotiator, by the end of her mandate in 2014 a greater focus on internal problems, rather than external strategy, often undermined the CFSP.

Ashton’s successor, Federica Mogherini, concentrated more on the role of Commission Vice-President and highlighted the effects that the EU’s internal policies have on the EU’s global role, such as functioning defence or energy markets. One of her most lauded achievements was formulating the EU Global Strategy (see Box 8.4) that ambitiously sought to combine different EU internal and external policies in a joint approach. However, its implementation required member states to compromise, especially on planned reforms of the CSDP.

Box 8.4 Spotlight on: The EU’s Global Strategy

In 2016 the high representative presented a foreign and security policy strategy (Mogherini 2016) with the twin aims of reflecting member states’ shared interests and mapping out ways to pursue them with the policy toolbox of the EU. The document offered insights into European foreign policy thinking at a time when external and internal crises challenged the EU’s ability to act. ‘Global’ in the title was meant not only in terms of geographic reach, but also pointed to a broad set of EU instruments, including energy, counterterrorism, diplomacy, military, and trade policies.

A key concept that appeared throughout was ‘resilience’ against internal and external threats. The aim was to foster ‘the ability […] to withstand, cope, adapt, and quickly recover from stresses and shocks’ (see Juncos 2016: 3) within the EU and its surrounding regions as well as around the world. Critics interpreted the focus on stability as a ‘return to realpolitik’ (Biscop 2016: 1) and wondered whether it implied that the EU had abandoned its focus on human rights and democracy for ‘a defensive military orientation, for which the resilience concept stands as shorthand’ (Bendiek 2016: 4).

A tangible consequence of the Global Strategy was a bundle of CSDP reforms that aimed to foster defence research and industry across Europe and make EU deployments speedier. Whether (say) the creation of a billion-euro European defence fund, military projects within the so-called PESCO framework, or closer coordination with NATO will lift EU defence to its feet remains to be seen. On a political level, the member states seem to understand that they need to pull their military weight together in order to be relevant in a more contested international order, an order in which US leadership has been waning.

p. 204In 2019, former Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell took over the post. Once more the organization of external policies in the European Commission was the subject of some debate. Commission President von der Leyen continued to orientate the Commission towards thematic priorities (see Box 3.2) and gave several of her vice-presidents powerful portfolios to steer the green and digital transformations. Rather than having the HR/VP as the only coordinator of external policies, the commissioners with economic, financial, and trade-related portfolios regained some external policy steering powers (Helwig 2019). Borrell vowed to make the discussions in the Foreign Affairs Council more strategic. However, his call for the EU ‘to speak the language of power’ faced immediate challenges, as the COVID-19 pandemic rocked global politics.

p. 205After the Lisbon Treaty and the Global Strategy, the question remained whether the EU was a truly global actor or rather a facilitator for a joint approach by member states in global affairs. On key matters of international diplomacy, such as the crises in Ukraine (see Box 8.5) and Syria, foreign ministers—and heads of state and government—continued to overshadow the HR/VP. However, without consultation and preparation in Brussels, a united approach, such as on sanctions towards Russia, would have been impossible. On matters of international security, the EU has the potential to respond to crises in neighbouring areas such as Africa, where NATO has little to no role. Non-aligned European states find the EU provides them with a forum for security cooperation without requiring them to sign up to a mutual defence pact, as NATO does.

Box 8.5 Spotlight on: The EU and great power rivalry

The EU faces the prospect of being caught between a rock and a hard place in a growing great power rivalry. While the US remains Europe’s closest ally due to mutual economic and security interests and a shared value base emphasizing human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, the Trump presidency raised concerns. Europeans wonder whether future US administrations are willing and able to invest as much in European security and international organizations as they have grown accustomed to. Instead the Biden administration has intensified its focus on China, the only competitor with the potential to match the economic—and possibly even military power—of the US. A key element of this rivalry is that the success of the Asian challenger is based on an alternative political system, with limited personal freedoms, a dominant role for the state in economic and public affairs, as well as a championing of a non-interventionist approach to foreign policy. As China and the US are economically closely intertwined, their decoupling poses great risks to European interests.

The EU’s relationship with Russia is one of its biggest foreign policy challenges. A pessimist would stress the EU’s dependence on Russia for energy, particularly because Moscow has a history of using gas supplies to strong-arm former Soviet republics or client states. Joint energy projects, such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, are often viewed as making the EU the weaker partner, although they also increase Russian dependence on the EU for the hard currency revenue they generate. The relationship is more complex, largely due to the fact that member states have diverging historical and security perspectives on Russia (Siddi 2018). The Union sometimes struggles to find a common response to the erosion of Russian democracy, the cyber-war waged (apparently) by Russia on Western institutions, and Russia’s aggressive military meddling in Ukraine or Syria. However, in recent years, the EU has hardened its position and is willing to put a price tag on Russia’s most blatant violations of international law—the comprehensive sanctions on Moscow related to the Ukraine crisis being the most prominent example.

The EU has a defensive position in the great power rivalry, marked by the desire to keep competition within the bounds of multilateral institutions and avoid a decoupling into different economic spheres. ‘Strategic autonomy’ has emerged as a guiding principle for the EU, meaning a greater ability to act economically, militarily, and technologically without having to rely on the US (Helwig 2021). To what extent the EU will be able to ‘defend its interests and values in an increasingly harsh world’ (Borrell 2020), and keep its close transatlantic links and global economic ties, is a subject of intense discussion.

Nevertheless, with some exceptions—such as its widely praised contribution to anti-piracy efforts on the east coast of Africa—the EU’s international security operations in Africa, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Libya have been relatively small and incidental compared to much larger operations under the auspices of the UN, NATO, or the US. In December 2017, 25 EU member states—all current members except Malta and Denmark—agreed to establish a PESCO (Box 8.1) in the area of security and defence policy. PESCO was introduced in the Lisbon Treaty and allows certain EU member states to strengthen cooperation in military matters (Articles 42 and 46 TEU). The participating member states worked on a series of joint defence projects—for example, a European Medical Command, a crisis response operation core, and cyber-security initiatives. While critics suggested that the projects were too small to represent a step-change in CSDP, the EU’s leadership hailed PESCO as a major development. As of 2021 a new European Defence Fund was seen as a game changer, as it for the first time gave the Commission a budget to fund defence-related research and development.

At the start of the 2020s the EU defence landscape was in flux. With the UK—as one of the most capable European military actors—having left the EU, the US increasingly reorienting its security focus towards Asia, and a continuously unstable neighbourhood, questions over the future organization and strategy of European defence became more pressing. Some formats, such as the French-initiated EI2 (Box 8.1), and new priorities in EU-NATO cooperation, such as on cyber- or hybrid p. 206threats, showed that the EU and its member states are willing to closely coordinate with allies and regional partners to uphold their security.

8.5 Theorizing the EU as a Global Actor

The expansion of the EU’s foreign policy role confounds many IR theorists, particularly those working in the realist tradition. Most realists make two assumptions. First, power in international politics is a zero-sum commodity. Second, all alliances are temporary (see Mearsheimer 2001; Waltz 2002; Rosato 2011). On one hand, realists are often convincing in explaining why the EU is weak or divided on matters of high politics, such as Iraq or Russia. They also have an advantage in explaining the external pressures the EU is facing and the re-emergence, in the 2020s, of geopolitical competition (Hyde-Price 2021). On the other hand, realists find it difficult to explain the EU’s international ambitions and activities, or even why it does not collapse altogether. More generally, 21st-century works of IR theory often barely mention the EU, or ignore it altogether (see Burchill et al. 2005; Devetak et al. 2012).

One consequence is that research on European foreign policy ‘has come to resemble an archipelago’ (Jørgensen 2006: 507), only barely connected to the study of IR more generally. Consider intergovernmentalist approaches to European integration, themselves derived from liberal theories of IR (Moravcsik 1998; Moravcsik and Emmons 2021). Liberal intergovernmentalists assume that governments respond to powerful, domestic economic pressures (see section 1.2.2). When governments agree policy deals that benefit national economic interests, they try to lock in those gains by giving EU institutions powers of enforcement. In contrast, governments face far weaker incentives to delegate foreign or defence policy powers to EU institutions, which explains why the EU’s trade policy is far more integrated than the CFSP. Beyond that insight, however, only recently have intergovernmentalists begun to show interest in the EU’s global ambitions. For example, Smith (2017) shows how attempts to enhance the Union’s representation at the UN via the Lisbon Treaty were undermined by the EU’s internal intergovernmentalism.

In contrast, one of the oldest theories of European integration—neofunctionalism—may still have mileage (Niemann and Bergmann 2021). For example, Meunier (2017: 593) finds that the transfer of competence over foreign direct investment, which markedly increased the EU’s clout in international economic diplomacy, occurred largely as a result of ‘neofunctionalist Commission enterpreneurship’. Meanwhile, institutionalism—a theoretical approach that shares many insights with neofunctionalism (see Haas 2001)—focuses on how the EU produces habits that eventually mature into institutionalized rules of behaviour (see Smith 2003; Menon 2011). The EU often creates new institutions—such as the high representative or the PSC—that develop their own interests and missions, and that can escape close intergovernmental control. Moreover, according to Smith’s (2015: 127) glass half-full view, ‘a high degree of institutional learning’ explains why ‘the EU has come a very long way in terms of its foreign policy performance’ since the 1980s and 1990s.

p. 207A leading approach to the study of European foreign policy remains constructivism (see Bretherton and Vogler 2006; Meyer and Strickmann 2011; Keukeleire and Delreux 2014). Constructivists depart from realists and liberals in insisting that the interests and identities of EU member states are not fixed before they bargain with each other. Rather, they are ‘constructed’ through bargaining. Constructivists, in contrast to institutionalists, insist that ideas matter as much as (or more than) institutions in IR. Wendt (1999) portrays the EU as more than a temporary alliance because its member states assume a measure of common identity through shared ideas about the desirability of multilateralism, environmental protection, as well as by seeing themselves as different than ‘others’ (Rumelili 2021). Many constructivists do not shy away from questions about what the EU should do in foreign policy, insisting on the importance of a ‘normative power Europe’ that stands up for its values and principles (Manners 2002, 2008; Forsberg 2011).

Arguably, however, constructivism sets the bar too low. Its proponents can become apologists for EU inaction or incoherence in global politics by always falling back on the argument that Europe remains ‘under construction’ as a global actor. As much as constructivists insist the glass is half full, others—such as Toje (2010, 2011), who portrays the EU as a ‘small power’, analogous to Canada, Peru, or Switzerland—argue that it remains half empty.

8.6 Conclusion

The idea that the EU should take a lead in expressing European power internationally has now become almost a mainstream view (see Morgan 2005; Peterson and Helwig 2017). The EU has come a long way from its humble origins in foreign policy. But it remains an odd global power, which has difficulty living up to its ambitions. The EU has increased its potential international power each time it has enlarged but simultaneously increased the difficulty of reaching consensus. While it is arguably a superpower in its external economic relations, EU foreign policy is only as good as the quality of the consensus among its members, and it is often of poor quality in an EU of 27.

One reason why assessments of European foreign policy vary so widely is because it is unclear how the EU’s success should be measured. There is no question that the Union is far more active internationally than its founders ever imagined it could be. In several policy areas, especially economic ones, it is a global power. No other international organization in modern history has even tried, let alone claimed, to have a ‘common’ foreign policy.

The Lisbon Treaty’s institutional reforms aimed to move the EU closer to being able to produce a truly common foreign policy. More than a decade after its entry into force, the question of whether the EU will ever be an effective and indeed global actor is as difficult to answer as ever. In the immediate aftermath of Lisbon’s implementation, it seemed as if the EU’s foreign policy was characterized by even more complex institutional interactions. Over the years, the EEAS ‘has earned its p. 208space as a coherence-building mechanism’ (Blockmans and Wessel 2021: 11) and new informal leadership practices have emerged in EU foreign policy (Aggestam and Johansson 2017). Still, cases like the Ukraine crisis show that, despite treaty changes, the willingness of powerful EU member states to take the lead on foreign and security policy matters remains crucial.

While the EU was paralysed during the first half of the 2010s by institutional infighting, the international environment became even more challenging in the second half of the decade. Two of the central states that functioned as guarantors of the post-1945 international order—to which the EU is inextricably bound—created significant turmoil for the EU. The US under President Trump called into question many of the foundational assumptions of that international order; and the UK, by voting to leave the EU, created new divisions and barriers to European cooperation. While Europe remained united in defence of, say, the nuclear deal with Iran, a two-state solution in the Middle East, and the rules enforced by the WTO, it was unclear how much, or how effectively, the EU could defend the liberal international order (see Peterson 2018).

Under the Biden administration, the US has (for now) returned to more cooperative foreign policy traditions. However, the negative consequences of failing US leadership for the EU’s ability to be a truly global actor cannot be overestimated. Discussion of the differences between the power and international roles of the US and the EU is not new. The failure of hard (mostly) American military power to achieve US policy goals in Afghanistan or Iraq—let alone Iran or North Korea or the Middle East—rekindled questions about whether Europe’s soft power might make it an alternative source of leadership in the 21st century (Rifkin 2004; Leonard 2005).

However, the Libyan crisis could be taken not only as an example of Europe being (again) reliant on US support and resources, but also as an example that exposed the limits of Europe’s soft power approach (Menon 2011). Without US support on major international issues, such as the Iran nuclear deal or deterrence of Russian aggression in the Baltics, the Europeans often have little to show for themselves. Given that, efforts to boost European military capabilities following the adoption of the EU Global Strategy are all the more pressing.

One of the EU’s former top diplomats argued that Europe cannot maximize its soft power until it invests more in its hard power (Cooper 2004). There is evidence that the EU has got the message, amplified by prodding from Donald Trump during his presidency, to spend more on defence (although Trump made this point more forcefully and pointedly than other US presidents, it was not a new point). There is no question that the EU faces powerful incentives—especially as it loses economic ground to states such as China, India, and Russia and faces security challenges in its neighbourhood—to become more united in foreign policy.

It is easy to see why debates about Europe as a global actor are so lively. The EU remains an often uncertain and hesitant global power, but one that never stops trying to be more coherent and effective. It will no doubt continue to frustrate its partners but sometimes to show surprising unity, and to fascinate—probably as much as it confounds—students of international politics.

p. 209Discussion Questions


How should we define ‘European foreign policy’? Why has this term assumed wide usage among those who study the EU’s international role?


Why are member states reluctant to entrust the Commission with responsibilities for the political side of foreign policy despite having done so in important areas of economic external relations?


How effective is ‘trade not aid’ as a policy to promote development?


Which depiction of the EU as a global actor (civilian, normative, market, small, military) do you find most and least convincing—and why?

Test your understanding of this chapter with additional self-test questions, with instant feedback.

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Further Reading

The best single source on Europe as a global actor is Hill et al. (2017). Useful overviews include Keukeleire and Delreux (2014), K.E. Smith (2014), and Youngs (2021). The effects of the Lisbon Treaty’s institutional changes are examined by Spence and Bátora (2015), Amadio-Viceré et al. (2020), and Blockmans and Wessel (2021). On the external effects of the EU’s single market, see Bradford (2020). Gstöhl and Schunz (2021) explore approaches to the study of EU foreign policy. Hadfield et al. (2017) explore the foreign policies of the EU’s member states and the extent to which they have become Europeanized.

  • Amadio-Viceré, M.G., Tercovich, G., and Carta, C. (eds.) (2020) ‘Assessing the post-Lisbon high representative: From treaty provisions to Europe’s multiple crises’, Special issue, European Security, 29/3.
  • Blockmans, S., and Wessel, R. A. (2021) ‘The EEAS at ten: Reason for a celebration?’, European Foreign Affairs Review, 26/1: 5–12.
  • Bradford, A. (2020) The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Gstöhl, S., and Schunz, S. (eds.) (2021) The External Action of the European Union: Concepts, Approaches, Theories (London: Red Globe Press).
  • Hadfield, A., Manners, I., and Whitman, R. (eds.) (2017) Foreign Policies of EU Member States: Continuity and Europeanisation (London: Routledge)
  • Hill, C., Smith, M., and Vanhoonacker, S. (eds.) (2017) International Relations and the European Union, 3nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Keukeleire, S., and Delreux, T. (2014) The Foreign Policy of the European Union, 2nd ed. (London: Red Globe Press).
  • Smith, K.E. (2014) European Union Foreign Policy in a Changing World, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Polity).
  • Spence, D., and Bátora, J. (eds.) (2015) The European External Action Service: European Diplomacy Post-Westphalia (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan).
  • Youngs, R. (2021) The European Union and Global Politics (London: Red Globe Press).
  • p. 210Web Links

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