The EU does have a foreign policy – and here is why we like it

By Marta Palombo | 9 May 2013

To quote this document: Marta Palombo, “The EU does have a foreign policy – and here is why we like it”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 9 May 2013,, displayed on 03 February 2023

The European Union foreign policy is generally harshly criticised. The very fact that the EU might be an actor in international relations is often questioned. Indeed, the EU foreign policy has demonstrated in the years to have several shortcomings, and sometimes to lack the necessary consistency and efficacy. But this is not what this article is about.

This article deliberately focuses on what the EU foreign policy is, rather than on what it is not. The very concept of EU foreign policy is revolutionary: never had this concept been applied to a political entity other than a state. The EU itself was originally an issue of foreign policy for its member states; today, it is a union with its own foreign policy. What this article claims is simply that we should be happy about it.

A better alternative

A common foreign policy was not included since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. It was only after the Davignon Report of 1970 that a European foreign policy was created in the form of the European Political Cooperation (EPC), initially limited to meetings of foreign ministers of the EC member states in national capitals twice a year. Only later was this cooperation institutionalised with the Single European Act (1986), and then transformed by the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) into the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

But why have rational, self-interested states agreed to have a common foreign policy? Well, first of all, it is in their interest. And this is true for all member states, from “the big three” (France, Germany and United Kingdom) to Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg. A common foreign is not only a matter of solidarity and protection from external threats. It is also a “shield”, as states feel safer to act together rather than unilaterally, and they can give the responsibility to the EU. Not least, a state that manages to upload its preferences at the EU level will see its policy preference implemented by 27 states simultaneously.

The EU is nice

“The Union’s aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples”, states article 3 of the Lisbon Treaty. For the very nature of the European Union as a political project, its foreign policy is strongly committed to certain values: it supports (and not “exports”) peace, democracy, human rights and prosperity. It also promotes multilateralism, regional cooperation, sustainable development and environmental engagement. It is not only the largest aid donor in the world; it also bases its trade agreements on a policy of conditionality, in order to guarantee the respect of the values it promotes.

Surely the EU foreign policy is not exclusively made of values; interests are always at stake. But the identity and rhetoric that the EU promotes, together with the constraints that decision-making among 27 states causes, oblige the EU to be particularly ethical in its foreign policy. The EU, as Kagan wrote, is a promoter of Kant’s perpetual peace.

EU foreign policy is growing (but it’s already quite big)

A common assumption is that, despite being very ethical, the EU is weak in its foreign policy. Well, think twice. The EU is a normative power, but not only. Firstly, we are still talking about the largest single market in the world, and the main trading partner of each one of the BRICS; better not undervaluing this point. But there is more: a Common Security and Defence Policy exists, and the EU military expense is only second to that of the United States.

Sure, the EU is often not responding fast and decisively to the international crisis. “What is the EU doing about Syria?”. But well, what is anybody else doing about Syria? The EU is not the perfect foreign policy actor, but indeed it makes a difference. It has got civilian and military missions around the world; and we should not forget its successes, as the recent Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.

Finally, a note on the future: the further emergence of the EU foreign policy ultimately depends on its member states. The Lisbon Treaty brought several innovations, such as the new role of the High Representative and of the External Action Service; these innovations, however, were implemented in a “low-profile style”. But two key actors, Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton, will stand down next year: and 2014 could be indeed a year of change.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe

To read

  • Duchêne, François, ‘The European Community and the Uncertainties of Interdependence’, in Max Kohnstamm and Wolfgang Hager, eds, A Nation Writ Large? Foreign-Policy Problems before the European Community, Macmillan, 1973
  • Ginsberg, Roy, ‘Conceptualizing the EU as an International Actor: Narrowing the Theoretical Capability-Expectations Gap’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 37, 3, 1999
  • Kagan, Robert, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, Alfred Knopf, 2003
  • Manners, Ian, ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 40, 2, 2002
  • Moravcsik, Andrew, ‘Europe: The quiet superpower’, French Politics, 7, 3/4, 2009

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