Getting to grips with European Union Foreign Policy




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Diplomacy and Statecraft



Peer reviewed



What exactly is European Union foreign policy? For much of the last decade, EU foreign policy has often been regarded as being synonymous with the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) that was set out in the 1993 Maastricht Treaty on European Union. This policy was shaped by three dominant factors: first, the ending of the Cold War; second, the parallel reassessment of European security structures; and third, a realisation that despite the relative successes of European Political Cooperation, the EU required a stronger policy to tackle the challenges of the ‘New Europe’.

The tests that the EU faced at that time were most markedly evidenced by the Gulf War, the emerging Yugoslav crisis, the collapse of the system of Soviet satellites and the prospect of future enlargement. One consequence of these events was that studies devoted to European security policy gained in prominence. And while there has been a widening in the interpretation of security policy, to include such ‘soft security’ threats as migration and immigration, it is nonetheless the case that other policies fall within the rubric of European Union foreign policy. This, for instance, includes trade, development cooperation, humanitarian aid, enlargement discussions, and links with other groups of states such as the Association of South East Asian Nations.

The instruments through which EU foreign policy is conducted vary from high-level multilateral trade negotiations, such as World Trade Organisation talks, to the deployment of military personnel. Other instruments though which EU foreign policy is carried out include diplomacy and economic sanctions, and their presence helps to assist our understanding of what EU foreign policy is about. To this end, we can point to recent EU efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the imposition in 2002 of EU sanctions on Zimbabwe’s president and his top aides as a response to elections that the US and EU regarded as illegitimate. But while these examples may present an image of coherence and coordination, such a picture is not fully reflective of the reality of EU foreign policy. Taking once again the example of Zimbabwe, the invitation by France for President Mugabe to attend a Franco-African summit in Paris on 19 February 2003 runs contrary to the use of sanctions. As Anna Lindh, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, commented: ‘It gives a very strange signal if the EU is having sanctions against Zimbabwe and at the same time is inviting Mugabe, even if it is one country inviting him to a special conference’. A further notable example concerns the efforts of the US to disarm Iraq, when in January 2003 ten EU member states refused to sign an Anglo-Spanish open letter backing US policy; only Britain, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain offered full support to the US. The presence of divisions and fractures among EU member states, including the absence of France and Germany’s signature, was therefore illustrative of the difficulty surrounding attempts for the EU to speak with one voice in international affairs.

Of the factors that impact on coherence, it is possible to point to two key points. In the first instance, EU foreign policy is hampered by problems of policy coordination across the three EU pillars. At the same time, many EU policies do not work in tandem with foreign policy actions. One of the most notable examples of this is that the excesses of the Common Agricultural Policy result in food being exported by the EU to developing countries where it is sold at a price that is lower than local farmers can produce. It is therefore evident that the CAP essentially runs counterproductive to other aspects of EU foreign policy, such as development cooperation. Secondly, the continuing presence of national foreign policies does not always sit well with a united EU foreign policy as national policies often run counter to EU policies. A lack of full coordination is apparent in third countries where the diplomatic representations of EU member states do not always work in unity, instead tending to work in parallel.

This article provides a review of four books that seek to clarify our understanding and knowledge of European Union foreign policy and aid our comprehension of the key foreign policy challenges that the EU faces. In terms of structure, the article is divided into five sections, of which the first provides an introduction to the nature of EU foreign policy. Section two examines the emergence of EU foreign policy and highlights the factors that have been influential in its development. The third section focuses on issues of coherence in EU foreign policy. Section four points out the relevance of conceptual tools to the understanding of EU foreign policy and focuses on the approaches advanced in the four books. Finally, section five examines the extent to which the four books have clarified our understanding of EU foreign policy.



European Foreign Policy, European Union


Blair, A., (2003) Getting to grips with European Union Foreign Policy. Diplomacy and Statecraft, 14, (3), pp.183-197


Research Institute