04 Juli 2023

What finality for EU foreign policy? Current reform debates are about more than just capacity to act

By Niklas Helwig
EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum in Stockholm
The multiplicity of national foreign policies with their own priorities, expertise, and interdependencies is a strength of the EU. European foreign policy aims to bring them together and strengthen them.

The current geopolitical context is increasing the pressure to reform the EU’s foreign policy system. In response to Russia’s war of aggression, the EU surprised some observers with far-reaching decisions on sanctions policy and military aid to Ukraine. At the same time, the crisis has reignited familiar debates: Is the EU’s largely intergovernmental foreign policy setup still appropriate in an era of international strategic competition? Or should the unanimity principle be abandoned in favor of a more centralized, genuinely European foreign policy?

Jean Monnet once predicted that Europe would be forged in crises. The Russian war of aggression therefore provides a strong argument for reforming the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Proponents argue that reforms such as the introduction of qualified majority voting (QMV) will enhance the EU’s ability to act globally. Moreover, they argue, the EU must be prepared for the expected accession of Ukraine, Moldova, and other countries. How is a geopolitical EU supposed to function if strong common positions are watered down in endless intergovernmental debate?

Two models of European foreign policy

The efficiency argument makes sense, but it does not tell the whole story. Many of the reforms currently under discussion are about more than just a few adjustments in the EU’s foreign policy structure. The fundamental question is which model of European foreign policy should be pursued in the future. On the one hand, there is the model of an integrated foreign policy, in which the EU is perceived more strongly as an actor and QMV can be used to exert pressure on divergent national positions. On the other hand, there is a system of closely cooperating but largely national foreign policies, in which the EU plays a coordinating and representative role but does not replace the capitals.

This paper argues that it is important to keep in mind the larger questions of the finality of EU foreign policy in the current reform debate. The point is not to engage in an unnecessary “protracted academic debate”, as EU foreign ministers seem to fear, but to find solutions that fit the EU’s historical development and, therefore, work. The risk is that pressures to increase the effectiveness of EU foreign policy lead to reforms that will not satisfy member states in the long run, thereby limiting the EU’s long-term ability to act. After a brief look at history, the article discusses three reform efforts by way of example and concludes with a proposal for a step-by-step approach to CFSP reform.

Wasted transformative moments

Several transformative moments in the past have briefly opened up the prospect of an alternative future of an integrated EU foreign policy, only to quickly shift back on course of gradual deepening of cooperation. In the period after the fall of communism, in the early 1990s, it was necessary to overcome scepticism towards a reunified and revitalized Germany. During the negotiations on the Maastricht Treaty, the concept of a “political union” in matters of common foreign policy was popular in Germany.

Proposal at the time were to attach the newly established CFSP to the European Commission and to take decisions by qualified majority. The institutional structure should not be unnecessarily complicated by separate treaty provisions. But, as we know, things turned out differently. France, a close partner and foreign policy heavyweight, wanted the CFSP to be introduced into the EU as an intergovernmental pillar. Unanimity remained the rule, and the European Commission was not given executive powers. With the Amsterdam Treaty of 1999, member states continued this cautious course and introduced the position of the High Representative for the CFSP as Secretary General of the Council, outside the Commission.

The next attempt to integrate EU foreign policy came with the Constitutional Convention in the early 2000s, which eventually led to the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. The pressure for reform was once again high, as the ‘big bang’ enlargement was just around the corner, threatening the ability to act of an EU of up to 28 member states. However, despite many proposals and lively debates, the CFSP was again not incorporated into the Commission and QMV did not become the norm. As a compromise, the “double hatted” position of High Representative/Commission Vice-President was created, and majority voting was introduced for some cases, although in practice it was rarely used. The “sovereignty reflex” of the member states worked despite good arguments and political commitment to the contrary.

Between radical uncertainty and destructive member states

There are good reasons to believe that this time the pressure for reform could be even stronger. EU High Representative Josep Borrell recently spoke of a time of “radical uncertainty”. Unpredictable events are occurring with increasing frequency (Brexit, Trump, Covid, the Russian attack …), while the EU has outsourced its economic and military capabilities to China and the US. An actionable EU foreign policy, Borrell continued, must be proactive and not think in the separate “silos” of the Commission and the Council.

Borrell’s frustration with the EU’s consensus-building is understandable. Recent years, for example, have seen an increasing number of cases where just one or a few member states have prevented the Council from adopting an otherwise unanimous position. Hungary particularly stood out with this practice, for example by temporarily blocking the sixth package of sanctions against Russia last year. Another politically sensitive case was Cyprus’ blocking of Belarus sanctions in autumn 2020 – not because Nicosia objected to the sanctions as such, but because it hoped for a tougher EU stance in a completely unrelated conflict with Turkey. This destructive attitude towards EU treaty practice in the CFSP requires a rewrite of the decision-making rules.

Extension of majority voting?

Against this background, the extension of QMV is at the centre of current debates on CFSP reform. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, for example, promoted majority voting in the CFSP in his speech at Charles University in Prague last summer. In particular, he highlighted sanctions and human rights issues. In 2018, the European Commission had additionally proposed EU civilian missions as a possible area for the application of QMV.

There are numerous options for introducing majority decisions within the existing treaty framework, some of which are already being used:

  • Implementing decisions can already be taken by qualified majority (Art. 31(2) TEU). This has been used in first cases, for example to adapt sanctions listings. However, the High Representative’s attempt to extend QMV to all decisions of the newly created human rights sanctions instrument failed.
  • There is also the possibility of “constructive abstention” (Art. 31(1) TEU). This rule was used for the second time last year, when the militarily neutral EU states of Ireland, Austria and Malta allowed the EU’s lethal military aid to Ukraine to go ahead.
  • The CFSP passerelle clause (Art. 31 (3) TEU) allows the extension of QMV to new issues (such as the above-mentioned sanctions and human rights issues). In particular, the Russian war of aggression has led some Central and Eastern European member states to reconsider whether an extension to sanctions could break the blockade attitude of individual countries such as Hungary.
  • Core groups can use Art. 44 TEU by having the Council delegate the implementation of a mission to them. This instrument was most recently proposed in the Strategic Compass with regard to security and defence policy.

The main obstacle to all the preceding options is that unanimity is required for their introduction. In addition to this implementation challenge, however, there is also a normative argument against the introduction of majority voting: EU foreign policy thrives on keeping negotiating until even the last member state – without fear of being outvoted – is satisfied with a decision. It is understandable that these long negotiations can be frustrating, especially when there are destructive deadlocks like those described above. But the end result is a decision that is supported by all member states and reflects the unity of the EU. The risks of implementing a decision only half-heartedly can be seen in the Russia sanctions, which are being circumvented even by EU companies.

Integrating the EEAS into the Commission?

Another popular reform proposal is the integration of the European External Action Service (EEAS) into the structures of the European Commission. The reasoning behind this is that more and more foreign policy issues are largely determined by sectoral policies such as energy or financial policy. Even if national diplomatic staff would continue to be seconded to the service (as called for in Art. 27 (3) TEU), this would still require a revision of the Council Decision on the EEAS, which explicitly defines the service as a separate entity.

Again, however, it should be noted that the organizational separation from the Commission follows a certain logic. Instead of creating a detached European diplomacy, the independent organization of the EEAS allows national diplomatic services to work closely with the EEAS and thus become more European. Connected with this setup was also the hope for an increased exchange of information, but this has not worked as smoothly as hoped.

EU esprit de corps in the European Diplomatic Academy?

The question of the relationship between national and European diplomacy also arises in the ongoing pilot project for a European Diplomatic Academy. The programme, tentatively scheduled to run for nine months, is inspired by the idea of “a new European diplomacy, formed by the single perspective of only representing the EU”, according to co-initiator and S&D MEP Nacho Sánchez Amor.

Although the final form of the academy is still being negotiated, one fundamental question is already emerging: Should the national participants be enabled to leave behind the interests and instincts of their capital through intensive European diplomatic training? Or should the young diplomats learn how the Brussels negotiating machinery works, build a lifelong network, and bring the capitals closer to Brussels? Do we want a unique EU esprit de corps, detached from national foreign ministries, or a closer link between Brussels and the member states?

EU or European foreign policy?

In the current reform debate, the desire for an integrated EU foreign policy is once again gaining ground, rightly justified by the need for a greater capacity to act. However, it is sometimes overlooked that foreign policy is still a competence of the member states, which have only committed themselves by treaty to act in the spirit of the CFSP and not to undermine it.

Indeed, it is one of the EU’s strengths that there is a multiplicity of national foreign policies with their own priorities, expertise, and interdependencies. The aim of European foreign policy is to bring these together and to strengthen them. An independent EU foreign policy detached from capitals, on the other hand, could overstretch the ties with the member states and thus do a disservice to the cause of a strong European voice in the world.

Step-by-step reforms

The current pressure for reform should therefore be used to implement step-by-step reforms. For example, the existing possibilities for majority voting should be used more systematically, as recently called for by six EU foreign ministers. The “Group of Friends on Qualified Majority Voting” (a new informal group initiated by Germany) could increase political pressure to make QMV the standard procedure for implementation decisions such as list updates in new sanctions regimes.

The accession of Ukraine and other countries to the EU also offers additional opportunities for differentiated integration, as the new members could be denied a veto right in the CFSP during the transition period. In the event of an intergovernmental conference to revise the EU treaties, the introduction of a super-QMV, as proposed by Borrell, would be conceivable. Majorities of “27 minus 2 or 3” would make it possible to undermine the main problem of destructive obstructionism and still bring along the largest possible majority of member states.

On the question of the organisation of the EEAS and the European Diplomatic Academy, it is also important to find solutions that represent the division of the various dimensions of the EU’s external relations between the Commission, the Council, and the member states, while at the same time allowing for the greatest possible cooperation between them. In responding to the Russian attack, the Commission and the EEAS have shown that they can indeed work closely together. Any necessary reform should preserve the institutional balance of Europe’s foreign policy system.

Niklas Helwig is a Leading Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki and Adjunct Professor at the University of Tampere.

This contribution is part of the thematic forum “Supranational governance between diplomacy and democracy – current debates on EU reform”, published in cooperation with the online magazine Regierungsforschung.de.

Translation: Yannik Uhlenkotte.
Pictures: EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum in Stockholm: Swedish Presidency of the Council of the EU [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr (cropped); Porträt Niklas Helwig: FIIA [all rights reserved]; EU flag: Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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