Foreign Policy: Should the EU have one?

Loïc Frémond // 20 February 2020

To start off the year, President Donald Trump approved a co-ordinated drone strike which resulted in the death of Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani. As a result of this escalation, the Middle East went into further turmoil, social media panicked over fears of a global war, and governments across the world condemned Trump’s provocation.

All except for the European Union. It took three days before the Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen released her official response; a bad start for her ambitions of making the Commission a more “geopolitical” administration. But more importantly, it highlighted the EU’s failure in meeting its responsibilities as co-signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Both Von der Leyen’s calls to “halt the cycle of violence”, and declarations made by the EU Representative for Foreign Affairs have fallen on deaf ears, as tensions between the US and Iran continue to escalate.

Failure to prevent Washington from jeopardizing political stability in the Middle East and the inability respond quickly begs the question: How efficient is the EU’s foreign policy? Or indeed, what purpose does the EU’s foreign policy serve? And to what should it even have one?

Historically, the European Union has struggled to produce a unified foreign policy. Its first attempt, the Pleven Plan, was introduced in 1950 and proposed a European Defence Community. This included the creation of a pan-European army, under a European Ministry of Defence. The supra-national military structure would source soldiers from signatory nations, standardise military-industrial capabilities, and increase European integration. The treaty was signed in 1952 but was never ratified.

Since then, the EU’s intervention track record hasn’t been great. For example, during the Balkans War, the EU’s attempt at action was so unsuccessful that UN security forces had to be called to end the conflict. Failure to effectively deal with war in its own backyard is referred to as the EU’s foreign policy “capability-expectations gap”: a disconnect between what the EU had claimed it would do and what it was able to achieve. Such a gap is the result of internal disagreement, a lack of shared resources, and the absence of effective institutions to mobilise them.

The Commission’s poor response to events in Iran is due to the same reason. Whereas a national government could coordinate much quicker, as was the case with France and Germany, the need for an absolute consensus left the European External Action Service crippled. The issue is one that inevitably arises when trying to consolidate the interests of 27 nations into a unified supra-national foreign policy. Ultimately, nations have conflicting interests and relations with other states.

As the EU has grown, this issue has only become more complicated. There have been many efforts to have a more cohesive foreign policy including the Treaty of Maastricht and the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). However, the addition of nations with conflicting cultures, histories, and attitudes means that there is greater divergence in their interests and greater disagreement on foreign policy.

If the purpose of EU foreign policy is to resolve conflicts, and it has repeatedly failed to do so, then it makes increasing sense to question the reason for keeping it. In theory, it aims to preserve Europe’s role on the global stage amid superpowers like the United States and China. In practice, it has left the continent in a state in paralysis. Furthermore, it is unlikely that EU foreign policy can be redeemed through institutional fixes. These issues are inherent to the very nature of the project.

There are two solutions to this problem: either increased integration, with member states devolving sovereignty over foreign policy to the union or moving towards a system of qualified majority voting. Either way, someone loses their voice. If the EU wants to be a global player, it must be able take decisions without unanimous consent of the EU27.

Yet, this seems almost impossible. Member States loath to be perceived as relinquishing sovereignty – a push towards greater scope for EU institutions could fuel anti-EU sentiments that already exist in certain member states.

Therefore, perhaps an alternative solution to this problem is the most straightforward: the EU abandoning efforts to draw up a co-ordinated foreign policy position that attempts to reconcile the national interests of 27 member countries. Instead, it could recognise that the matter should be left up to the national governments of each individual state, according to their own objectives, as well as the pre-existing international organisations they are members of, such as NATO.

EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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