Will 2023 mark a shift towards a more realist EU foreign policy?

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Evan Da Costa Marques
Evan Da Costa Marques

Programme Assistant at Friends of Europe

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, described Europe as a “garden” that must be protected from the rest of the world, which is mostly a “jungle” that may “invade [Europe] by different ways of means”, during the inaugural speech of the European Diplomatic Academy on 13 October 2022.

Throughout his speech, accusations of racism and neo-colonialist views aside, Borrell expressed a darker vision of the world, in which the EU no longer seeks to convince other countries to adopt the EU model of governance.

Rather, Borrell envisions a pragmatic role for the EU outside its own borders, dedicated to protecting itself, its values and its interests from any threats and competitive interests.

As his position is the closest to that of a foreign affairs minister for the Union, does Borrell’s speech reveal a shift from a value-centred to a more realist EU foreign policy?

The values and objectives of the EU […] include the promotion of European values and interests, the promotion of peace and security, the protection of human rights

One objective of the European project, rooted in the aftermath of World War II, was to ensure the continent’s role as an important actor in world affairs through strong economic and diplomatic relations. Peace was established as a core element of the project, and its model of freedom and equality was intended to be adopted by other parts of the world.

The values and objectives of the EU that determine its relations with the rest of the world, as stated in Article 3 of the Lisbon Treaty, include the promotion of European values and interests, the promotion of peace and security, the protection of human rights, as well as respect for the Charter of United Nations.

Throughout its history, the European Communities and the European Union have adopted external policies following those objectives and values. Humanitarian aid, development cooperation and trade have also prevailed as major aspects of EU external policy.

Nevertheless, a critical question has arisen: what are the benefits of a realist foreign policy for the EU?  

The missions and operations of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) exemplify a step forward in EU involvement outside of its borders

The absence of realism in EU foreign policy is a long-standing criticism. Several politicians, scholars and experts claim that EU external policy is disconnected from the world because it only aims to defend its ideals and values.

A realist external policy would enable the EU to both analyse the international context with pragmatism and effectively defend its interests, instead of solely focusing on ensuring the respect of its values and promotion of its democratic model. The missions and operations of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) exemplify a step forward in EU involvement outside of its borders. Since the 1990s, the EU has launched more than 30 military and civilian operations destined to provide humanitarian aid to populations threatened by conflicts and to help resolve wars and tensions. The CSDP missions are far from only serving a humanitarian purpose; they also ensure the EU’s security by preventing specific threats from reaching the territory of the Union, such as the newly agreed European Union Monitoring Capacity in Armenia in October 2022.

The new shift to realist EU foreign policy can also be observed in the last Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations led by the EU. For instance, the two European Union Capacity Building Missions (EUCAP) in the Sahel region, launched in Mali and Niger in 2012, aim to improve local governance and stabilise the region. Such missions also exist to preserve the interests of the EU abroad, as improved security not only secures the trade of raw materials between the EU and countries of the region but also diminishes migration pressures on European countries.

The EU’s unprecedented military assistance to a non-member state shows that the EU is now ready to be involved in foreign security and defence issues

A realist EU foreign policy would also be of help to Ukraine. The EU is directly providing lethal weaponry to another country for the first time in its history. Since March 2022, the EU has sent around €2.5bn worth of equipment and weapons to Ukraine, using funds from the European Peace Facility. Through this direct military assistance, the EU is involved in helping Ukraine counter the Russian invasion. However, such assistance has another purpose linked with the core objective of the European project: ensuring peace and stability in Europe. The EU’s unprecedented military assistance to a non-member state shows that the EU is now ready to be involved in foreign security and defence issues, especially at the military level, to preserve peace within the European continent.

So, how can the EU establish a more realist foreign policy in 2023?

It is necessary for EU member states to share the same stance in terms of foreign policy, at least on key issues, such as the war in Ukraine. The often-noticeable differences in member states’ foreign policy preferences undermine the EU’s ability to become a global actor that can have an impact on major geopolitical issues. Foreign affairs ministers from all EU member states should draft and adopt a common roadmap on EU external policy as an official text that settles key foreign policy positions for the EU and its member states. This roadmap could include EU positions on the Russian invasion of Ukraine or relations with its neighbours and key partners, such as the United States and China. EU member states should not deviate too much from this roadmap, as common EU positions on geopolitical challenges would only strengthen EU diplomacy.

Is the EU learning how to become a global power? Is the EU shifting its foreign policy approach or only strengthening its current stance by being more defensive of its interests? All things considered, the EU needs to change its foreign policy to become what it has always aspired to be: a major player in international relations.


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

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