The European Union as a Global Actor

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The European Union as a Global Actor

Ben Tonra

Jean Monnet Professor of European Foreign, Security and Defence Policy

UCD School of Politics and International Relations

University College Dublin

+353 1 716 7615

+353 86 816 8265

There has been considerable debate surrounding the nature of the European Union’s international capacity. Early conceptions of the Union as a civilian – or non-military actor – dominated early thinking, characterising the Union as a new kind of international actor (Duchene, 1972). Others, meanwhile (Galtung, 1973; Bull, 1982) argued that this simply sought to make a virtue of weakness and that if the Union were ever to be taken seriously, then it would have to develop a full-spectrum military capacity. That debate, in a somewhat different form, continues today. The ‘civilian power’ thesis (Maull, 1990; Smith, 2005; Stavridis, 2002) has evolved to one in which the Union continues to be posited as a new kind of international actor, but now as one which is somehow uniquely capable or uniquely configured as effective exporter of norms and values in the international system (Manners, 2002; Sjursen 2004). Others insist that only as the Union develops its nascent military capacity can it begin to shoulder real international responsibilities (Smith, 2005; Kagan; Cooper). Within this second debate exist more polemical positions on the adverse, or other, consequences of the ‘militarization’ of the Union’s international profile and transatlantic arguments surrounding a division of labour between the US and EU in delivering ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ security capacity. This paper will outline and critically engage these debates. It will conclude that while the Union remains a distinctive international actor, the trajectory of its development may suggest the pursuit of an ‘enlightened power’ model.


The original treaties establishing first the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and then in 1957 both the European Atomic Energy Community and the European Economic Community made no mention of foreign or security policy. Nonetheless, the Communities were international actors by virtue of their very existence: their international treaty base and their interaction with other global actors and institutions. Furthermore, there was an underlying political assumption that the process of European integration was one that was inherently political and which aspired to the creation of a truly political European community of states. Thus, it was to be expected that shared interests would gradually and increasingly be assigned to a supranational authority which, over time, would further extend its policy reach (Deutsch, 1954; Deutsch et al., 1957; Haas, 1958). Moreover, within this neo-functionalist perspective, it was presumed that such a process would not be limited to domestic welfare issues of trade and production, but that it would also spillover from this area of ‘low politics’ into the ‘high politics’ of international relations and foreign policy. For these theorists, the move from a Common Commercial Policy to a Common Defence Policy was both desirable and inevitable.

Throughout the early period of the EC’s development, there was an implicit acceptance that the Community was already engaged in international politics. Certainly, trade could not be divorced from politics. This was illustrated by the association of former French overseas territories to the emerging European market, to the negotiation of bilateral trade agreements and to the EC’s participation in multilateral trade talks. Gradually, the EC Member States were drawn – as a group – further into explicitly political issues with attention being given to EC relations with South Africa (Holland, 1988 and 1995) and the Middle East (Ifestos, 1987; Grielsammer and Weiler, 1987), with the EC’s reaction to the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas crisis (Stavridis and Hill, 1996) and to the EC’s contribution to the Helsinki process (Nuttal, 2000). In each case the use of trade and other economic tools were linked – and sometimes explicitly – with political goals such as the end of Apartheid, a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict, or support for Détente.
Indeed, for many analysts of the contemporary European Union, it is in the precise realm of trade, economics and aid that one continues to find the real substance of European power and its potential for global projection. Michael Smith, for example, has written (1998) on the need to reassess ideas of power and international actorness. He argues, for example, that the EU’s Common Commercial Policy and its impact upon global trade agreements, has far greater foreign policy significance than analysts properly credit. Similarly, of course, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has far greater effect upon the developing world than the impact of all the coordinated political declarations issued by EU Member States on the developing world. Indeed, a persuasive case is made in favour of viewing of the Union’s own enlargement policy as being its most significant foreign policy contribution to peace in the 21st Century (Smith, K., 2004). Others have assessed the EU’s approach to key strategic regions such as the Mediterranean (Gomez, 2003; Maresceau and Lannon, 2001) and the countries of the former Soviet Union (Barysch, 2004), most of which have been conducted through the mechanisms of the EU’s trade, economic and development cooperation policies.
While these approaches offer a necessary corrective to an unhealthy preoccupation with ‘high politics’, they still underscore the reality that the EU’s international coherence and effectiveness relies upon a balance between different policy tools and an effective decision-making structure. That structure, however, has not developed as originally foreseen – that is to say increasingly shared political interests being pursued through a set of common supranational institutions. Instead, Member States have created a parallel structure to deal with explicitly ‘foreign’ policy issues.
As the pressures increased – most notably from third parties – to see the EC take a more visible international stand on the major issues of the day, the Member States responded by developing an intergovernmental policy structure that excluded the supranational institutions (Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice) and which was devised outside the parameters of the founding EC treaties. Even in those areas where orthodox Community rules continued to be applied, such as trade and economics, Member States proved themselves surprisingly adept at resisting efforts either to relate these to explicit foreign policy goals (Hoffman, 1966) or even to extend Community competence to associated issues, such as intellectual property rights and trade in certain service sectors.
In 1970 the Member States of the European Communities established a procedure for the coordination of specific, agreed foreign policy positions. European Political Cooperation (EPC), as this procedure was called, was created outside the ambit of the Community’s institutions and law and was based upon an explicitly intergovernmental base. It was not until the 1986 Single European Act that the basic infrastructure of EPC was set out in a formal treaty text. Even then, it was provided for within a very distinct Title of the SEA treaty, and was agreed among the “High Contracting Parties” rather than among the “Member States” of other treaty provisions. In form and content therefore, EPC appeared to be precisely the kind of interest-driven, Member State controlled procedure that intergovernmentalists would have expected to see ascribed to the realm of foreign policy cooperation (Pijpers, 1990).
Witnessing the apparent stagnation of the European project in the late 1970s some analysts saw the stubborn strength of intergovernmental interests – exemplified in EPC - as the best possible illustration that state interests were the true driving force behind the European integrative project, which was itself the complex product of a simple 'convergence of national interests' (Moravcsik, 1991). The EU’s institutional superstructure could then be seen as the matrix within which an especially complex system of interstate bargaining would then take place and through which the cooperative benefits of such interstate bargaining would be distributed (Moravscik, 1994). Analysts could also point to empirical case studies where the dominance of state interests in the construction of a ‘common’ European position could be clearly seen (Ifestos, 1987; Pijpers, 1991; Hoffman, 2000) where the interests of the larger states predominated and those of the smaller states bought off through side-payments in other policy areas.
However, earlier neofunctionalist frustrations with European foreign policy cooperation were quickly matched by those of intergovernmentalists (Wessels, 1982). In the early 1990s As EPC was replaced by the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and came to be strengthened and developed further, it became increasingly evident that European foreign policy cooperation appeared to play by its own rules. Member State interests were not the immutable object of state ambition, nor did European foreign policymaking follow the prescribed intergovernmental script. Instead, the Commission assumed an increasingly significant role, the European Parliament became involved and even qualified majority voting was introduced. However, if European integration theorists found themselves struggling to understand and explain the EU’s international persona, international relations’ theorists were positively dumbfounded.

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