Priorities for the EU’s New Foreign Policy Agenda up to 2024

Unleashing the Potential of the Common Foreign and Security Policy

02/10/2019 | by Jana Puglierin

DGAPanalyse 5 (October 2019), 18 pp.

Category: European Union

Taking practical steps toward a more effective Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) must become a top concern for the EU in its next political-institutional cycle. The fresh start in Brussels in terms of personnel and setup offers a window of opportunity to revise CFSP’s priorities, as well as its conceptual and institutional framework. This presupposes that member states are actually willing to subordinate their own national objectives to a common European goal and make the necessary compromises.

© REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/Francois Lenoir/Javier Barbancho

Executive Summary

The changing international environment and mounting external challenges have given new momentum to further developing the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Promoting European interests and values on the global stage and increasing the EU’s capacity to act autonomously are among the main priorities of the European Council’s new strategic agenda for 2019–2024. In it, the European Council commits to making more resources available and to better using those the EU already has at its disposal. The designated new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also supports a “stronger Europe in the world” and wants to increase the Commission’s focus on external action. It is important that announcements are now followed by actual deeds, but the conditions remain difficult. 

At a time when, more than ever, the EU needs to act as a united international player in order not to become a pawn in the hands of major powers, the European member states are increasingly struggling to find the energy and political will to set aside their disagreements and focus on the European common interest. 

Looking back on the ten years since the Lisbon Treaty became effective illustrates how difficult it remains to find the necessary consensus and support for joint foreign policy action within the CFSP framework. The EU often had no adequate answers to foreign policy crises, and its influence on the international system as a whole has declined.

The reasons that have so far prevented a proactive and coherent European foreign policy are connected to the nature of foreign policy as a core element of national identity and sovereignty. They are also deeply rooted in the structural inconsistency of supranational and intergovernmental elements in CFSP governance. In sum, CFSP suffers from 

  • an ongoing lack of unity and consistency both between EU institutions and member states and between the member states’ national foreign policies;
  • the reluctance of member states to hand over sovereignty and powers to Brussels;
  • a lack of loyalty and (therefore) a lack of willingness to compromise;
  • the member states’ skepticism about the added value of the EU as a framework for foreign policy action;
  • a fragmentation of external competences.

Today, the number of foreign policy challenges has massively increased. Given the limited influence that even the largest European countries have relative to major powers like the US or China, the EU is the only instrument European states will be able to use to advance some – if not all – of their most important foreign policy objectives.

Although the list of foreign policy challenges for the EU is long, four crucial areas stand out because they shake the very foundations of European foreign policy. In these areas, Europeans have only two options: collective empowerment or autonomous decline. They are:

  • Protecting multilateralism in an increasingly national, unilateral world
  • Shoring up the transatlantic relationship
  • Dealing with a rising China
  • Catching up in the race for AI and new technologies

In order to create a more effective Common Foreign and Security Policy, big institutional reforms, implying treaty changes, are currently not in the cards. Nor is it likely that member states will show an increased willingness to hand over significantly more sovereignty to Brussels.

There are, however, several good ways to further develop the CFSP governance structure in order to better enable the EU to address these challenges and unleash the EU’s foreign policy potential. They are not mutually exclusive, but present different options that should be followed flexibly depending on their prospect for success. In the end, the Union’s ability to act is less determined by the actors and parameters by which the CFSP will ultimately be further developed. Rather, it is more important for member states and institutions to speak with one voice and for the measures taken to strengthen, rather than undermine, the cohesion of the EU. This report presents the following practical instruments and methods that would improve the CFSP’s effectiveness and could be applied within the given operational framework. 

Strengthen European foreign policy interests by exploiting the full potential of the EU’s legal framework

The Lisbon Treaty provides more scope for the Europeanization of foreign policy than is currently being used. While some of the treaty’s unused instruments could speed-up the decision-making process and would give external powers much less incentive to cultivate Trojan horses in the EU, the realization of this potential depends solely on the political will of the member states. When pushing for progress on the implementation of the treaty’s unused instruments, one should be careful not to dissuade more member states from pursuing their common foreign policy interests through the EU legal framework. After all, qualified majority voting (QMV) or “constructive abstention” are not silver bullets for solving all of the CFSP’s problems in one fell swoop. 

Embrace the trend toward ad hoc coalitions ensuring this does not weaken EU cohesion and democratic legitimacy

In the coming years, European states might have to choose what is more important to them even more often: EU unity or the European ability to act. It might well be that the latter cannot be achieved with all 27 member states (after Brexit). Some European member states may be even more willing to move ahead with a selected group of like-minded partners that are ready to act together expediently. It is important to shape the coalitions in a way that does not undermine the cohesion of the EU-27. 

The involvement of EU officials, respect for smaller partners’ sensibilities, and an inclusive and transparent approach are essential. The European Council should focus much more on foreign policy issues than is currently the case, and its president, Charles Michel, should steer this debate in a strategic way. A good working method would be to discuss foreign policy objectives and strategy together in the European Council and then task a coalition of willing-and-able member states with their implementation, offering incentives.

Apply the “Barnier method” to CFSP

Discussing how to create a stronger CFSP – one that is more than the extended arm of national foreign policies – presupposes that the member states are actually prepared to grant real leadership to an actor that speaks and acts on behalf of the EU.

The Brexit negotiations serve as a role model for how such an approach can be successfully implemented, taking the interests of both the member states and the institutions into account. While Michel Barnier was able to speak on behalf of the EU and his task force coordinated the Commission’s work on all strategic, operational, legal, and financial issues related to these negotiations, member states remained in the driver’s seat of the negotiations at all times. This method could also be applied to foreign policy. 

Redefine the role of the High Representative (HR)

Josep Borrell, the next designated HR, may be able to lend more energy and charisma to European foreign policy in the future. He has considerably greater experience than his predecessor, Federica Mogherini, and is known for not shying away from conflict. Much will depend on Borrell’s good relationship with von der Leyen and Michel, as well as on his ability to obtain the trust of the member states. However, there should be realistic expectations from the outset since he will have only limited influence and shaping power.

In terms of work share, Borrell should be tasked with a clear mandate from the member states to actually lead some important foreign policy portfolios and negotiate on behalf of the Union, as in the case of Mogherini and her predecessor Catherine Ashton with Iran. One of his first priorities should be to start working on a follow-up document that revises the EU Global Strategy, making sure that member states fully buy in this time around.