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Pluto Press
European Union Foreign Policy: What it is and What it Does

European Union Foreign Policy: What it is and What it Does

by Hazel Knowles Smith


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745318691
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 03/20/2002
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.13(d)

About the Author

Ciaran de Baroid was born and educated in Cork. He has worked on community and human rights issues in Ballymurphy over a three-year period.

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Does the European Union Have a Foreign Policy?

It seems an odd question to ask, if the European Union has a foreign policy. After all the title of this book presumes it has one and the contents list of this book shows a list of areas of discussion in relationship to that foreign policy. The reason we need to start with the question, however, is that it is by no means accepted as 'common sense' by policymakers, academics or students that the Union has a foreign policy as do states – for example, Britain or France or the United States. This chapter therefore sets out to show that the European Union does indeed have a foreign policy and that it can be analysed in pretty much the same way as we can analyse that of any nation-state. This chapter also presents a framework for analysis – a framework that is further developed in Chapter 4 – and which is used throughout the book to help us understand the scope and scale of the European Union's policies and activities abroad – its foreign policy. First of all, however, we need to look at and dispose of the objections to the idea of a European Union foreign policy.


Criticisms of the concept (the idea) of European Union foreign policy are both structural/institutional and capacity related. Structural/institutional critiques argue that the European Union is so deficient structurally or institutionally that it cannot take and implement foreign policy decisions. Capacity critiques argue that the Union may make decisions but its weak capacities prevent effective implementation and therefore the Union cannot be considered a foreign policy actor in the way that a nation-state can be considered so. The main structural/institutional critiques are that the Union is not a sovereign entity, it is subordinate to the wishes of the 15 member states and it does not have a centralised decision-making authority with a single executive. The three main capacity critiques are that the Union does not have a direct military capacity, that there is a significant capability–expectations gap and that it is not very effective in international crises. These are not mutually exclusive criticisms but it is useful to deal with them one by one – and then decide whether individually or in aggregate terms they amount to a compelling refutation of the idea of a European Union foreign policy.

The European Union is Not a Sovereign Entity

The European Union comprises 15 sovereign states. It has neither legal sovereignty nor international legal personality. Of the various institutions that together make up the Union only the European Community possesses legal personality and can therefore sign international legal agreements. Yet the Union, as represented by the European Council and the subsidiary Councils which preside over the Union, regularly takes decisions which are then implemented by the Community and a number of different actors. In other words it behaves as if it were sovereign. Certainly its partners – both allies and adversaries – negotiate and react to the Union as if it were a sovereign actor. This is because the Union has an impact on both the domestic and international affairs of partner countries such that it cannot be ignored. This is only partly because the member states have given up sovereignty to the Community (as part of the Union) on external trade.

Most importantly, however, the European Union is treated as if it were sovereign because even where the member states have not formally abrogated sovereignty they have allowed the Union, on many issues and with their participation, to take and implement decisions on their behalf. The Union therefore exercises sovereignty, not as something separate from the member states but as something that provides an addition to member state activities in international affairs. This does not mean that the European Union is a simple instrument of member states. Instead its decision-making structures allow for a process of negotiation so that a European Union commonality of foreign policy interest can be achieved. This commonality of foreign policy interest is not a simple aggregation of individual member states interest. It is also sometimes hotly contested by individual member states. On some foreign policy issues members states even accept 'losing out' because their overall view is that a commonality of European Union foreign policy provides more advantages than disadvantages. In other words the individual member states become more powerful in world affairs to the extent that they can regularly 'speak with one voice' on the world stage.

The European Union as such is not a sovereign international actor. Lack of formal sovereignty, however, has never stopped the Union from taking and implementing foreign policy decisions. Neither has the worry about giving up sovereignty to the European Union in practice affected member states' decisions to allow the European Union a very large degree of autonomy in a number of different areas – most noticeably in foreign trade. This should come as no surprise. After all many of the states of the European Union have already permitted a derogation of sovereignty on much more sensitive issues. The European Union member states that are also member states of NATO agreed when they joined that organisation that a United States supreme commander should take control over national military forces in times of crisis.

The European Union is a Subordinate Actor to the Member States

This objection is a variant of the lack of sovereignty thesis but emphasises that the Union is merely an instrument of the member states. For this criticism to make some sort of conceptual sense, it would have to take into account how the European Union manages to develop and implement foreign policy that somehow ends up serving the national interests of 15 different member states with 15 different foreign policies. Instead this argument seems to presume what it wishes to deny – which is that the European Union is a strong sovereign actor – so strong that it can transform 15 member states' foreign policies into a homogeneous single approach. Instead the answer is more complex.

In practical terms, the European Union does not act independently of the member states but neither is it either instrument of or subordinate to member states. Instead the various interests of the various actors involved in the Union are negotiated so as to find commonality of interests. The evidence for this is provided by the sometimes tortuous decision-making – involving trade-offs across policy areas – that accompanies the development of European Union foreign policy. It is also clear in foreign policy outcomes – for instance in the now notorious decision of the Union to recognise Croatia and Slovenia at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars (see Chapter 8), despite the major doubts of key member states.

In both conceptual and practical terms therefore it does not make much sense to conceive of the European Union as a subordinate actor to or mere instrument of the member states.

Lack of a Centralised Decision-making Capacity with a Single Executive

Another objection to the idea of the European Union possessing a foreign policy is that, because it does not have a centralised decision-making capacity with a single executive power such as a president or a prime minister, it cannot develop and implement foreign policy. The Union has a complex set of decision-making procedures with a central executive that is not one person but rather a group of people – the European Council. Decision-making procedures are clearly spelt out in the various legislation that underpins the Union in which the powers of the executive authority of the Union are also recognised.

What this criticism does is to confuse speed and alleged effectiveness with capacity. Decision-making processes are slower than in most national states and it is difficult to find a commonality of interests on every issue. These are, however, practical difficulties – sometimes very important practical difficulties – but they do not constitute a conceptual difficulty in the notion of a European Union foreign policy. Many states, particularly democratic states that are built upon a separation of governmental powers, are vulnerable to conflicting interest groups demanding different foreign policies in response to those different interests. The United States provides the best example of where conflicts over foreign policy result in inability of the central government to carry out its preferred policies. The unpopularity of President Reagan's policy towards Central America in the 1980s for instance forced the administration to 'go underground' – resulting in the illegal arms for hostages, the 'Irangate scandal' – which severely damaged the Reagan presidency. On the whole though the United States does not face such stark conflicts of foreign policy priorities such as to prevent its administration from carrying out foreign policies in areas which it considers vital to its national interests. Neither in practice has the Union been prevented from developing and implementing policies that serve the commonality of European Union foreign policy interest.

The most significant aspect of the criticism that the European Union does not possess a single executive capable of taking centralised decisions is the practical question of the time decisions take to be made. By itself this would not be a substantial criticism – after all the most efficient decision-makers are dictators given that, by definition, they do not have to consult at all prior to deciding policy. This criticism would be valid, however, if consistent delays meant that the European Union was unable systematically to develop and carry out its foreign policies. The rest of this book will show that this has occasionally been a problem for the European Union but not as much as it has sometimes been alleged – and not such as to prevent it from carrying on to develop policy where it wishes to sustain its interests and activities.

Lack of a Military Capacity

The European Union does not possess its own military forces although it is moving to develop a rapid reaction force so that it can respond more effectively to international emergencies. It can, however, call on the military resources of member states and has in fact worked closely with member state peace-keeping forces in international crises, for instance in former Yugoslavia. Like the member states, the European Union prioritises NATO as providing the defence mechanism for Western Europe. Indeed, many states throughout the world do not possess effective military forces yet most analysts and policymakers would accept that such states possess foreign policies. Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1948, provides the extreme version of this thesis. Yet other states like Luxembourg for example do not have the capacity for either aggressive or defensive military activity. This does not prevent Luxembourg from possessing and implementing an active foreign policy. Neither does the absence of direct control over military resources prevent the European Union from pursuing and implementing foreign policy.

The Capability–Expectations Gap

The simplest version of this thesis is that the Union generates expectations that it simply cannot deliver on. The argument is that the Union puts out large numbers of statements on every conceivable foreign policy issue and yet is able to act effectively in very few areas. This can be for a number of reasons. It can be because of dissension between the member states, because the Union does not have appropriate instruments at its disposal – particularly military force – or simply because it was not designed to be a foreign policy actor and so finds it too difficult to respond effectively.

This argument has some merit as the Union clearly finds that it sometimes cannot operate as effectively as it might wish in international affairs despite the fact that it may have generated high expectations of its potential input. The classic example was the Union's early activity in Bosnia when it was hoped that 'Europe' would be able to settle matters without United States assistance (see Chapter 8). That this was a false hope caused some reconsideration of the Union's foreign policy capacity – resulting in the eventual moves to create a European Security and Defence Identity (see Chapter 3).

The error of this argument, however, is to infer that a capability–expectations gap is singular for the European Union. Many states – large and small – cannot put into practice foreign policy ambitions and when they do, sometimes fail to achieve their goals. China is a case in point in that during the Cold War China generated huge expectations from independence and revolutionary movements globally that it would be able to offer effective support. These expectations were not met. The United States, the world's only superpower, provides another salutary example. It was not able to achieve its war aims in Korea (1950–53), lost the war against tiny Vietnam (1975) and in the early twenty-first century is spending billions of dollars in an unsuccessful drive to eradicate narco-trafficking and anti-governmental guerrillas in Colombia.

The point is not then that the argument does not have merit but that it is an argument that is also applicable to the activities of most states as they try to achieve foreign policy objectives. The argument would have more merit if the Union could be shown as systematically not achieving objectives through lack of capabilities – more so than in the case of most nation-states. The chapters in this book which evaluate the foreign policy activities of the Union in practice – the empirical material – indicate, however, that the Union has achieved a large number of objectives and engaged in significant (and not so significant) foreign policy activities abroad (see Chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8).

The Union is Not Very Effective in International Crises

This effectiveness argument is a variant of the capability–expectations gap thesis except that it accepts that the Union can be an important foreign policy actor in, say, foreign trade or development issues, but argues instead that the Union cannot respond rapidly enough to international crises and its lack of a military capacity is fundamentally debilitating for its foreign policy ambitions. This argument certainly has plausibility in that the Union has been exposed as wanting in crises. Its structure means that it must achieve consensus on major issues and it simply does not have the power or the instruments to engage in crises at very short notice. On the whole though this does not provide a telling critique against the idea of a European Union foreign policy. It is not just that many states do not have the military power to intervene effectively in international crises. It is rather that even if the Union has difficulties in achieving short-term interventions, what it has shown is that it is particularly suited for more long-term interventions in crises. The Union's capacity to mobilise its own resources as well as to coordinate the activities of member states and other international organisations provides perhaps stronger guarantees for long-term sustained involvement in post-conflict reconstruction than promises by an individual state that may have to bend to domestic exigencies. In other words there is some argument that the Union may be uniquely well suited to manage more long-term involvement in what are increasingly the foreign policy tasks of the post-Cold War era – peace building and economic and political reconstruction.

In some ways the effectiveness argument is not predicated at all on the Union's lack of prowess as compared to the nation-state in general. What the argument rather presupposes is that the Union is not as effective in international crises as the United States. This is most of all an argument about power politics and relative capability of important political and economic entities. It is not about the theoretical possibility or not for the European Union to possess a foreign policy.


There are, therefore, no conceptual difficulties and few practical difficulties to the idea of the European Union possessing a foreign policy much the same as that of the nation-state. By foreign policy we mean the 'capacity to make and implement policies abroad which promote the domestic values, interests and policies of the actor in question'. This is not a catch-all definition which would permit an intergovernmental organisation like NATO or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to claim foreign policy attributes. Instead this definition assumes an entity with a more or less coherent set of domestic values, interests and policies. This is certainly so for the European Union with its developed philosophy based on liberal capitalist democracy, and its panoply of domestic competencies and policies on issues ranging from the common market to cooperation in policing and judicial matters. The foreign policy of the European Union is the capacity to make and implement policies abroad that promote the domestic values, interests and policies of the European Union.


Excerpted from "European Union Foreign Policy"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Hazel Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



1 Does the European Union have a foreign policy?

2 Laying the groundwork: 1945-1968

3 Institutionalising Union foreign policy

4 How it works in practice

5 The European Union and the North

6 The European Union and the neighbouring South

7 The European Union and the distant South

8 The European Union in the New Europe

9 Guns or butter?

Abbreviations and glossary



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