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Europe's role in the world: EU foreign policy in light of the U.S. election


Die US-Wahlen haben erneut die Debatte um die Rolle der EU in der Welt geweckt. Pamela Preusche diskutierte zusammen mit Dr. Annegret Bendiek über die Handlungsfähigkeit der EU auf globaler Ebene sowie über Reformen, wodurch die EU souveräner und selbständiger werden würde.

On November 05, 2020, Pamela Preusche and Dr. Annegret Bendiek from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) discussed EU foreign policy in light of the U.S. election in an online citizens' dialogue organized by the citizens' initiative Europa-Union Deutschland. A survey among the audience of the online citizens' dialogue also showed clearly: people would like the EU to be more present, as Preusche says, "more capable of acting" at the global level.

But what are the opportunities for the EU? What steps need to be taken in terms of both domestic and foreign policy to expand the Union's sovereignty in a multilateral system? And to what extent must the European role in the world be redefined?

In small steps to a common voice

In the form of competences, high representatives, and internal voting procedures, the necessary steps have been known for several years. Through recurrent debates, the current EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) has emerged in a long process that has its origins in the European Political Cooperation of 1970 (EPC). Formally, however, a common foreign policy of the EU member states only became possible with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and the establishment of the European Union as an independent legal entity. In 1999, moreover, the post of High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the European External Action Service (EEAS) came into being, which has since implemented and controlled CFSP decisions and been responsible for jointly coordinated European diplomacy.

Passerelle clause and unanimity

In the course of the debate about a stronger European responsibility in the world, the compulsion for unanimity in foreign policy decisions is often invoked, which presupposes a common position of all 27 member states. Responsible for this is Article 31 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which is seen as the starting point for the implementation of the CFSP. It regulates the required majorities, veto rights, and other decision-making options of the EU member states. Specifically, the EU has the possibility to use so-called decisions and international treaties to implement the objectives of the CFSP.

In fact, these decisions are usually taken unanimously. But the article leaves open a possibility to take decisions with a qualified majority, i.e. not unanimously. Namely, if the European Council or the Council of Foreign Ministers has explicitly and unanimously enacted this possibility beforehand. This method, also called passerelle clause, is by Art.48(7) an integral part of the EU's scope of action. This clause is explicitly not applicable to decisions with military or defense implications.

This explicit exception is often criticized. After all, blockades by individual member states are not uncommon in foreign policy decisions. Cyprus, for example, blocked sanctions against Belarus for a long time and used the blockade as leverage to equally enforce sanctions against Turkey, although the two conflicts have little to do with each other thematically. This approach has contributed to a delay in EU responses regarding Belarus. Proponents of unanimity, however, see the need to address all member states' interests and only take a united position. Abolishing unanimity in foreign policy matters would only worsen EU unity in the long run.

Exporting standards

Another way to jointly shape European foreign policy is to sign treaties under international law. Since the Treaty of Lisbon (Art. 37), the EU has the possibility "to conclude agreements with one or more States or international organizations". For this purpose, the EU Commission receives a mandate from the European Council, for example to conclude a trade agreement. The EU Commission is thus in charge of the negotiations. Although the EU emphasizes the importance of enforcing European standards, some free trade agreements brought the public into the streets, who saw in these agreements, among other things, a threat to European consumer and environmental protection.

But common standards that embody European values can have international impact even without trade agreements. Here, above all, the strength of the European single market for foreign companies should not be underestimated. As Dr. Bendiek pointed out to SWP during the Citizens' Dialogue, past regulations have proven to be a good way to establish European standards worldwide. This has been particularly successful in the areas of data protection and cybersecurity. The 2018 EU General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR) became a global model for new legal regulation and spurred improvements in data protection from private companies such as Facebook and Google.

EU value-driven trade and economic policies can thus contribute, albeit indirectly, to enhancing the EU's common foreign policy and influence in the world. But national interests still play a major role, especially in economic and energy policy matters, as illustrated only recently by the divergent reactions to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under construction. In the absence of a common full-fledged European energy market, different threat perceptions for national energy security arise, making a common EU positioning difficult. Here it becomes clear that even a value-based economic and foreign policy has its limits if Europe's own market situation does not allow for a common position.

Defending values

But what does values-based foreign policy look like in an international context? For example, some political developments in the EU's neighbor Russia touch on the EU's values. A fact that can lead to a diplomatic tightrope act. As Ms. Preusche of the German Foreign Office emphasized, a value-based foreign policy must nevertheless be maintained in relations with Russia. After all, Russia is of great importance to Europe, especially as a neighbor, which is why a good relationship must continue to be cultivated.

Also with regard to the protests in Belarus, which have been dragging on for more than 80 days, there is the question of how the EU deals with political events that do not correspond to the European understanding of values. On November 6, the European Council added 15 members of the Belarusian government, including President Alexander Lukashenko, to the sanctions list. The reason for this is the violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, journalists and opposition members following this year's presidential elections.

Dr. Bendiek of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) believes that the EU could become more involved in the case of Belarus. She sees particularly great scope for action in an adapted "internal market foreign policy" through economic sanctions and stronger border policy measures, such as the issuing of visas. Repressive interventions in the form of military intervention, on the other hand, cannot be expected from the EU, she said.

"It is important that we work on a realistic foreign policy. A foreign policy that aims at Europe's preservation and protects the European territory and its citizens*. I see the chance for a reactive policy, not more." - Dr. Annegret Bendiek, SWP

Own interests in view

Whether the EU can establish itself in the future as a sovereign and independent actor in a changing international order and defend its own interests will depend on the extent to which the EU can reform its internal processes. After all, long-term success will not be achieved with position papers and value-based rebukes of other countries. Here, the EU will have to answer the question for itself of how to deal with future breaches of norms by economic partners. That is, whether to be satisfied with the mere verbal defense of European values or to actively seek to export European values.

By establishing universal legal norms and quality standards, the EU nevertheless has concrete options at its disposal with which to defend its value-based economic and political interests. Especially in times of new geopolitical conflicts, and a reorientation of the U.S. towards China, it is up to the EU to position itself strategically wisely in order not to get under the wheels.

The U.S. elections have once again awakened debate about the role of the European Union in the world. The groundwork has been laid to reassess its own position in a changing international order.

Team & authors

About the Civil Dialogues project: Citizens talk to experts and politicians in independent, objective and open-ended discussions. The goal is to participate in the European project and to critically and constructively participate in the current discourse.

Image copyright: Unsplash, Europa-Union