Between two stools: the EU’s foreign policy


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe

The European Union’s effort to devise and conduct a common foreign policy is once again falling between two stools and risks consigning Europe to geopolitical irrelevance.

Despite the promulgation of a Global Strategy in 2016 and a Strategic Compass in 2022, EU foreign and security policy has advanced more in theory than in practice. The Union remains torn between its values and its interests, between a common EU position and the views of the 27 individual member states, and between multiple, often competing, power centres in Brussels. The result is, at best, the slow emergence of a common-denominator consensus that is not always up to the policy challenges and, at worst, a cacophony that is embarrassing to Europeans and incoherent to the world.

The EU’s initial response to the Hamas-Israel war has been an illustration of worst practice. To critics, it showed that the Union will never be a serious geopolitical player because member governments will never pool sovereignty on foreign affairs in the way they do on trade, business regulation or monetary policy, where the EU acts collectively through the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

To supporters of a common EU foreign policy, stumbles in crisis management should not obscure advances Europe has made in building long-term partnerships that take decades to nurture in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, combining trade, development cooperation, humanitarian assistance, institution building and political dialogue. Believers argue that occasional bouts of disarray just highlight the need to take decisions more effectively.

Yet in a world in which multilateralism is breaking down due to great power conflicts and the emergence of more assertive ‘medium powers’ acting independently, willing to take risks and use force, the EU’s approach to external relations requires a rethink. The start of a new five-year cycle in the European institutions offers such an opportunity.

It is commonplace to say that no EU country alone, not even the biggest economy, Germany, or the biggest military power, France, carries much weight in the world without the backing of the EU as a political-economic bloc. Yet few EU states, especially the largest ones, seem ready to yield to a common position that might inhibit their national interests or freedom of action.

Could [the EU] do better than its Mideast mess? Almost certainly yes, as its performance on Ukraine shows

Case study one: the Middle East

First, a look at the EU’s Middle East muddle to draw some lessons. Reacting to Hamas militants’ slaughter of nearly 1,300 Israeli civilians in towns and villages near the Gaza Strip, the Hungarian Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, announced a freeze on EU aid payments to the Palestinians, apparently without consulting either his colleagues or member states. The Commission backpedalled and said some financial assistance would be reviewed. It later said aid would be trebled because of the humanitarian crisis caused by Israel’s military response.

The High Representative/Vice President for Foreign Affairs and Policy, Josep Borrell, condemned Hamas’ barbaric attack but also said that Israel’s response of cutting off water, power and fuel to the Gaza Strip violated international law. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed unreserved support for Israel and made a symbolic visit to the country without publicly urging restraint or mentioning international law. Several member states criticised her stance as unbalanced and unrepresentative of the EU as a whole.

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, who is supposed to conduct high-level EU diplomacy, was not invited to or informed of von der Leyen’s trip but coordinated a more even-handed joint statement by EU leaders eight days after the Hamas assault and convened an emergency virtual summit to try to unify the bloc’s position. But the EU is wrestling over what to say, rather than what to do.

During the same period, the United States dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region in an attempt to deter Iran and Hezbollah from widening the conflict. President Joe Biden and his secretaries of state and defence visited Israel to deliver messages of solidarity but also to caution against revenge, seek to calm Israeli rage and work with regional Arab partners trying to secure the release of hostages and the delivery of humanitarian aid. The US president also took time to confer with European allies on how to contain the crisis.

This was a great power acting in a disciplined, methodical and practical way in foreign policy. Will the EU ever get there? Probably not. For one thing, it’s not a state and doesn’t have armed forces of its own. Could it do better than its Mideast mess? Almost certainly yes, as its performance on Ukraine shows.

Without US leadership and massive US military and intelligence support, Ukraine might well have been defeated by now despite EU efforts

Case study two: Ukraine

Perhaps the nearest the Union has come to best practice was its response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine since February 2022. After differing on intelligence assessments of Russian intentions and on the value of pursuing dialogue with the Kremlin, member states quickly united in condemnation of the aggression. The EU took a strong joint political stance with NATO from day one. With deft preparation by the Commission, EU leaders agreed within days on an impressive first package of economic sanctions, coordinated with the United States and the United Kingdom. The EU also announced a first plan to fund the supply of weapons to Kyiv.

Subsequent rounds of sanctions led to a massive cut-off of gas imports from Russia and a substantial reduction in oil imports, despite carve-outs for dependent central European states – especially Hungary, Slovakia and Austria. Despite the EU’s remarkable success in weaning itself off Russian energy, Moscow was able to earn extra billions for its war chest as export revenues rose due to soaring market prices. Several member states managed to keep niche interests – diamonds for Belgium and nuclear energy cooperation for France, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Finland – out of the sanctions net. The EU was also nimble in repurposing its European Peace Fund to reimburse arms supplied to Ukraine by member states and later to purchase ammunition in common for Kyiv.

By and large, the EU has demonstrated message discipline on Ukraine, despite noisy debates between central European Russia hawks and western European doves over relations with Moscow. Only Hungary has voiced a radically different, pro-Russian position. Budapest has slowed deliberation on further rounds of sanctions but has not ultimately blocked agreements.

However, when examining the effectiveness of EU foreign policy in the conflict, the unavoidable conclusion is that it has not weakened Russia sufficiently to make President Vladimir Putin change course nor provided Kyiv with sufficient military equipment and economic support to prevail. Without US leadership and massive US military and intelligence support, Ukraine might well have been defeated by now despite EU efforts.

That conclusion is particularly worrying given the possibility that Republican Donald Trump, committed to reducing US assistance to Ukraine and pressing for a quick peace negotiation, may win the 2024 US presidential election. Europe needs to prepare for the eventuality of having to provide most of the political leadership and the military as well as financial support to Ukraine. Despite the embryonic collective ammunition purchasing, there is little sign that EU foreign policy is up to that task.

The convergence of international crises has distracted attention and drained energy from the EU’s long-term policy of developing political and economic partnerships with other parts of the world

Reconciling interests and values

The dysfunctional EU response to the Israel-Hamas war was a reflection not only of persistent institutional rivalries but also of deep-seated differences in sympathy and interests on the Middle East among the main member states. For historical reasons, Germany – von der Leyen’s home country – feels a special responsibility to protect Israel. For reasons of geography and history, France, Italy and Spain – Borrell’s home country – feel closer to Arab states and the Palestinians. Central European states that joined the EU in the 2000s mostly align instinctively with Israel and the United States. These differences led to an open rift over the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Such fundamental divergences might be better bridged by a more disciplined decision-making process and by giving the High Representative greater authority to coordinate EU foreign, development and sanctions policy. However, that would require the other leading figures in the EU’s institutional matrix to step back in the name of efficiency and unity, rather than each insisting on their own entitlement to speak for ‘Europe’. This is particularly hard for a Commission president who has been the internationally recognised European leader during the Covid-19 pandemic, in the Russia-Ukraine War – in which she has been Biden’s go-to interlocutor – and in articulating a more critical EU policy towards China.

The convergence of international crises has distracted attention and drained energy from the EU’s long-term policy of developing political and economic partnerships with other parts of the world that seek to emulate at least some aspects of European integration, while preserving the sovereignty of nation-states in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. These regions are part of the so-called Global South – a simplistic term for low- and middle-income countries with a variety of political and economic systems, which often have little in common except that they are not advanced industrialised nations and that most of them were once colonised by European powers.

The implicit loyalty test imposed by the EU on these countries over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had damaging effects on Europe’s standing notably in Africa, India and Brazil. Resentment has been compounded, especially in Muslim countries, by accusations that the Europeans apply double standards over the respect for international law between their condemnation of Russia over Ukraine and their support for Israel despite its flouting of UN resolutions on the rights of the Palestinians. The Israel-Hamas war has exacerbated those divergent perceptions.

At the same time, a spate of military coups in west and central African states has upended the EU’s strategy for trying to stabilise the Sahel region and raised questions about which partners the Europeans should work with in Africa. Von der Leyen and Borrell have both announced a review of the EU’s Africa policy without giving much detail of what that might entail.

One school of thought among member states questions the Commission’s policy of investing its political capital in buttressing the African Union as its central interlocutor. They consider that the AU has neither the power nor the resources to deliver African solutions in peace and security, development or economic integration. These member states argue that the EU should work mostly with like-minded African states and coalitions willing to advance pragmatically on issues, such as investment protection, carbon markets, fighting climate change, agricultural development, combating migration and counterterrorism, rather than with those that look to Russia for security or to China for investment. However, these states often overlap and are keen to play the field of outside powers to suit their needs. The counterargument advanced by EU officials is that building up the AU is a long-term investment that requires strategic patience and should not be discarded due to short-term setbacks in the poorest parts of the continent.

The EU is more tortured partly because of its diffuse power structure

Actor or bystander?

Here again, the EU’s values and interests collide: promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law versus ensuring stability and economic interests and combating irregular migration. The same contest between values and interests dogs EU relations with countries such as Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey and Serbia, nearer to home.

These conflicts are not unique to the EU. Individual democracies such as the US also struggle with contradictions between realpolitik and liberal principles. But many have a more streamlined system for arbitrating such conflicts, like the US National Security Council. The EU is more tortured partly because of its diffuse power structure, in which the European Parliament, largely deprived of a say over foreign policy, often behaves more like a human rights NGO than a defender of European strategic and economic interests.

Many NGOs are already unhappy that, in their view, the EU is increasingly sacrificing its principles to commercial or geopolitical interests in its external relations. They would rather the EU stuck to development partnership rather than viewing regions such as Africa through a security and migration lens, and to upholding human rights rather than seeking energy or migration deals with authoritarian regimes.

If the EU is to become a more effective foreign policy actor in what Enrico Letta and Sébastien Maillard call “a world of bullies”, it needs better institutional structures with more decisions taken by majority voting, a stronger role for the High Representative and a much greater commitment by member states to pool their interests and resources to achieve more joint clout in the world. Much of that could be achieved within the existing treaties, but it requires political will.

To many experienced diplomats, the idea that any French president would defer to Brussels rather than take a national initiative in a crisis in the Middle East or Africa is unimaginable, despite the poor record of French initiatives on Lebanon, Libya or the Sahel in recent years. Just as it is unthinkable that Paris would yield its UN Security Council permanent seat to the EU. The same doubts apply to German chancellors’ willingness to fall behind an EU line in respect of relations with Russia and China.

Yet unless and until Paris and Berlin are willing to pool more of their foreign policy sovereignty, the EU’s effort to carry more geopolitical weight will continue to fall short, leaving the world’s largest trading bloc as a bystander and commentator, unable to defend either its interests or its values.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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