# 39|2016: Mobilität/Artikel

Unlocked Potential. Why a strong European common foreign and security policy matters and what it could mean for the European Union as a global actor

by James Hollis

Advocating in favour of a common foreign and security policy (CFSP) for Europe is far from a simple task. Even if one were to put aside the European Union’s (EU) current dilemmas with respect to mass migration and macroeconomics, the very notion of EU foreign policy would most likely evoke images of division and incoherence. Indeed, such images are not far from the truth owing to frequent clashes in EU member state foreign policy interests (see Zielonka 2006). Whatever misgivings critics of CFSP may harbour, it is nonetheless becoming increasingly clear that debate and progress on this issue cannot be dismissed on the basis of current political impracticalities. This is because the events of recent years have demonstrated a pressing need for a strong EU foreign policy platform, which is as influential as it is united.

What’s more, despite the shortcomings of the current CFSP framework there is however reason for optimism. This is due to the fact that the EU is beginning to carve out its own distinct presence on the international stage. With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 the EU has for a number of years been represented in its international dealings by a high representative for foreign affairs who is in turn supported by an EU diplomatic core, the European External Action Service. Such advances however, mean little where there are still those not least the member states themselves, who are yet to be convinced about the merits of having a strong CFSP. Indeed, with the EU coming under increasing pressure as a result of the migrant crisis and the looming possibility of a United Kingdom ‘Brexit’, the EU project itself is in need of support by those who still believe in its potential.
With this in mind, the following article will be aimed towards lending support for EU foreign policy by explaining why a strong CFSP is important both for the EU and its member states. It will demonstrate that whilst individual member states continue to project their own influence within international affairs, it has nonetheless become increasingly necessary for there to be a distinct European voice within world affairs. It will argue that member states are more likely to be successful at tackling the most pressing of globalization-induced international problems where they work together within the CFSP’s framework. Finally, it will set out why the EU–were its member states to unite firmly behind a common foreign platform for Europe–has the potential of playing a significant role in shaping international affairs.

A European Voice in World Affairs

First of all, despite the numerous advantages that EU member states may be able to enjoy when pursuing their own distinct foreign policy goals, there is nonetheless an increasing need for a distinct ‘European voice’ within world affairs. Currently each member state retains firm control over foreign policy (see Zielonka 2006). This reality is encapsulated in the distinct foreign ministries, foreign ministers and diplomatic services of member states the combination of which enables them to represent their own political and strategic interests on the world stage. Given their numerous and varied foreign policy interests, it is not unusual for such interests to come into conflict with one another. Additionally, the political and strategic interests of member states can also differ significantly. That is, diplomatic impasses may not solely be due to clashing interests but also clashing priorities, where a particular foreign policy issue for one member state may not be deemed as important and as urgent as it is for the next. For example, whereas the current migrant crisis might constitute an urgent foreign policy issue for Italy (see Kirchgaessner 2015), it is unlikely to constitute as pressing an issue as the political turmoil in Ukraine is for Poland (see Lyman 2015). Clashing interests and differing priorities help illustrate why it has proved such a challenge to arrive at any proper consensus on foreign policy amongst member states in general (see Zielonka 2006). Such a reality lends traction to the argument that foreign policy should remain exclusively within the remit of member states.

Notwithstanding this state of affairs, there is however a growing need for Europe to craft its own distinct voice on the international stage. That is, it has become ever clearer that the EU needs a voice, which is both distinct as it is influential when compared to the voices of other major international players such as the United States, Russia and China. This is all more so the case where positions on crucial international questions differ substantially. Taking relations with the United States as an example in this regard. First of all, one could indeed question the need for a separate European voice in international affairs, which is distinct to that of the United States given that any EU foreign policy stance is likely to coincide with that of the US. This is understandable given the strong links that many EU countries continue to have with the United States not least through their membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Notwithstanding such ties, what cannot be overlooked is the fact that the US perspective on international affairs does not always converge with that of the European perspective.

Whilst Europeans share a number of views in common with the United States with respect to foreign policy there are instances however rare when such views diverge, the 2003 invasion of Iraq being a prime example in this regard. Although there were a number of European countries including the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and Poland, which supported the American-led invasion of Iraq, there were also those European countries, most notably France and Germany, who were deeply opposed. What’s more, those EU member states opposed to the Iraq war were by no means alone. In addition to those member states opposed to the invasion were significant majorities living within countries who notwithstanding their government’s stance, were in fact opposed to the invasion. For example, even though the Czech government supported the Iraq war, polling conducted at the time showed that 70 percent of Czechs were in fact opposed to their government’s position on the question (see Zielonka 2006). Polls also showed that 62 percent of Poles were opposed to the US-led invasion, a particularly striking fact given Poland’s traditional pro-American stance (see ibid.).

Strong opposition to US foreign policy on such an important foreign policy question amongst European elites and populations demonstrates that the European perspective on international affairs, even when set alongside that of a historic ally can prove to be quite distinct. It is therefore necessary that where there are foreign policy differences between on the one hand EU member states and on the other, a major international power or powers that the EU is able to project its own distinct voice. This would have as its consequence the creation of a unique European perspective, which with the proper backing of EU member states could potentially wield decisive influence in world affairs. This stands in stark contrast to the much-reduced influence that member states would exercise with respect to major international powers when acting on their own or together but in much smaller groups.

Mammoth Problems requiring Mammoth Solutions

Another key reason, which militates in favour of a strong CFSP has to do with the nature of the international challenges facing Europe today. Today, EU member states are increasingly being faced with a number of far-reaching foreign policy issues, which are as profound as they are varied. Given their gravity, such challenges have begun to place a serious strain on both the capacities and resources of individual member states (see Bildt 2016). Indeed, a key indicator of this reality is the ever-increasing number of meetings on foreign policy, which are taking place between member state heads of government at EU level (see Bildt 2016). In effect, member state leaders themselves realize that–given the size and complexity of the foreign policy issues confronting them–they must meet regularly in Brussels and work together in order to formulate solutions to tackle such issues (see ibid.).

One notable and difficult foreign policy challenge to confront member states in recent times has been that of political instability on the EU’s borders in both Syria and Libya –a major consequence of which has been the refugee crisis. Not only does this crisis affect a number of member states simultaneously, but it is a crisis that can only be managed with any degree of success by member states working closely together in order to deal with the crisis as it stands both within as well as outside the EU. With respect to the crisis as it stands outside the EU, member states have for some time been working together to try and formulate foreign policy solutions in order to tackle the refugee crisis closer to its source (see Gallen 2016).

One foreign policy solution to have been proposed in response to the problem has been in the form of assistance for Turkey, which has become the main transit country for Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe (see Bajekal 2015). In this regard, member states can only hope to achieve progress with respect to stemming the flow of refugees from the Middle East if they can negotiate a successful political settlement with the Turkish government (see Bildt 2016). Similarly, member states can only hope to deal with mass people trafficking across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe if an agreement can be reached with countries such as Libya and Tunisia in order to deal with this problem with any degree of success (see ibid.). A strong CFSP, which enjoys the proper backing of EU member states would have sufficient political clout to negotiate successful arrangements with those non-EU countries, which are strategically vital with respect to the migrant crisis. A strong CFSP would also be able to bring together sufficient resources, which could then be used to tackle some of the major challenges associated with the crisis. For example, any agreement arrived at with Turkey would necessarily have to include an offer of financial assistance in order to assist the Turkish government to deal with the significant number of refugees who currently reside within Turkey’s borders (see ibid.). A strong CFSP would be able to bring together adequate financial resources in order to develop and initiate peacebuilding initiatives aimed at supporting refugees in Turkey. It would also be able to bring together the significant military and civilian logistics necessary for the effective implementation of anti-smuggling strategies aimed at supporting the Libyan authorities in their fight against people trafficking across the Mediterranean. After having analysed some of the major reasons, which argue in favour of a strong CFSP it would be useful to take a look at what a strong and united CFSP could mean for the EU as a global actor.

The Promise of a Strong and United CFSP

First of all, a strong CFSP would translate into an effective pooling of influence of each of the EU’s individual member states each of who wield influence in different parts of the world (see ibid.). For example, given their connections with the Commonwealth and with the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, both the United Kingdom and France would be able to use their respective influence within both organizations for the benefit of the EU as a whole. The United Nations also constitutes another important example in this regard, where both the United Kingdom and France continue to hold two of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. This is not to exclude the contribution that a member state like Germany could make to EU foreign policy. This is especially the case given that Germany is beginning to make its presence felt on the international stage as recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme and with the Russian Federation over Ukraine have shown. Furthermore, given its history of close relations with Eastern Europe made possible through its ‘Ostpolitik’ (see Forsberg 2016) Germany could also provide the EU with an important bridge to both Eastern Europe and in particular to the Russian Federation. Such a prospect is all the more vital both today and in the future given the significant deterioration in Russia’s relations with the west as a result of the crises in both Ukraine and in Syria.

A strong and united CFSP would also establish the EU as an important guarantor of development and stability in the world. This would largely be due to the nature of CFSP, which has never been based on any narrow ‘realpolitik’ calculation but has instead been firmly based on the projection of the EU’s soft power (see Zielonka 2006). Indeed, CFSP has operated in this fashion with respect to non-EU countries for years, some of who are interested in EU membership and the political and economic benefits that this would bring. Towards that end, non-EU countries with an interest in EU membership have sought to align both their institutions and practices with those of the EU (see ibid.). This they have done in order to reflect the EU’s values, which include an adherence to the principles of democracy, a market economy, and respect for the rule of law. But as mentioned above, the influence exercised by a strong CFSP would not be confined solely to those non-EU countries interested in EU membership. This is because the CFSP’s soft power is also projected towards those nations interested in for example EU market access and financial aid, all of which is conditional on adherence to fundamental EU values and practices (see ibid.). There are an increasing number of countries in both Asia and Latin America who are now following the EU’s example with respect to such values and practices in order to secure the considerable benefits that such a move would bring (see ibid.).

The projection of influence beyond the EU’s borders through a strong CFSP could bring about two major benefits. First of all, it would contribute towards promoting practices whose dissemination within other parts of the world should be universally considered a noble endeavour, for example respect for human rights. Secondly and as highlighted above, as a ‘reward’ for following the example set by the EU, non-EU countries would then be eligible to receive substantial benefits from the EU such as those outlined above. This would in turn contribute significantly towards their own national development, which is particularly important for those countries that continue to be plagued by significant under-development. This would not only endow the EU with significant influence within different regions of the world but would also go some way towards contributing to peace and stability in the world at large.


CFSP like the EU itself is by no means perfect. It continues to constitute an area of EU policy plagued by division. Such division is a result of the EU’s member states themselves, all of who jealously guard national control over foreign policy. Given globalization and global trends it has however, become increasingly clear that there is a need now more than ever before for a strong and united CFSP. This is especially the case given the ever-pressing need for a distinctly European voice within international affairs, which has the backing of the majority of the EU’s 28 member states. This would provide all member states with significant influence on the world stage vis-à-vis the other major players within international relations and would go some way towards shaping the direction of world affairs. Secondly given the extent and gravity of the foreign policy dilemmas facing Europe today, it has become increasingly clear that such challenges can only be addressed with any degree of success by EU member states working together through the CFSP’s framework. The current migrant crisis demonstrates the scale of some of the challenges, which might face the EU in the years to come and which can only be solved by a strong and united CFSP.

What’s more, in those instances where the EU is able to provide an adequate degree of unity in CFSP the potential influence of the EU and that of its member states is likely to be considerable. This is because a strong CFSP would be able to draw together the foreign policy strengths of all member states all of whom exercise influence in different parts of the world. This could then be used to benefit the EU as a whole. Additionally, by exercising its significant soft power influence through CFSP the EU would continue to wield considerable influence in relation to those countries interested in future EU membership. Furthermore, it would also exercise significant influence in relation to those countries interested in maintaining good relations with the EU and the numerous benefits such as market access and financial aid, which such relations could bring. The EU would as a consequence, not only exercise considerable influence within non-EU countries but would also be contributing to development and stability abroad. There are of course significant obstacles, which will continue to hamper the effective functioning of CFSP for the foreseeable future, the most significant of which are likely to be those of clashing member state interests and priorities. Hence why the argument that foreign policy should remain firmly vested in the hands of member states is likely to remain an attractive one. That may be, but given the scale of the international challenges facing Europeans today, it might well be worth our while to encourage Europe’s national leaders to unlock the full potential of CFSP by uniting firmly behind a common international agenda for Europe.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the European Commission or of any other European Union entity.

James Hollis is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and of the City Law School in London. He is currently working as a trainee in the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations at the European Commission in Brussels.

Heft #39/2016 als .pdf


Bajekal, N. (2015): Why the E.U. Is Offering Turkey Billions to Deal with Refugees. http://time.com/4076484/turkey-eu-billions-dollars-refugee-slow/ (access: 30th March 2016).

Bildt, C. (2016): The EU as a Global Power: An International Agenda for Europe. Chatham House, London, January 27, 2016.

Forsberg, T. (2016): From Ostpolitik to ‘frostpolitik’? Merkel, Putin and German foreign policy towards Russia. In: International Affairs 2016/92, 21–42.

Gallen, C. (2016): France, Germany pile pressure on Turkey to stem migrant tide. http://news.yahoo.com/france-germany-pile-pressure-turkey-stem-migrant-tide-185750335.html (access: 30th March 2016).

Kirchgaessner, S. (2015): Italy calls for help rescuing migrants as 40 more reportedly drown. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/16/italy-calls-eu-mediterranean-migration-crisis-rescue-migrants (access: 30th March 2016).

Lyman, R. (2015): Poles Steel for Battle, Fearing Russia Will March on Them Next. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/world/europe/poland-steels-for-battle-seeing-echoes-of-cold-war-in-ukraine-crisis.html?_r=0 (access: 30th March 2016).

Zielonka, J. (2006): Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged European Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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