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EU common foreign policy: feasible or unrealistic?

The origins of collective defence and foreign policy can be traced back to the years following World War II. Indeed, the Treaty of Brussels of 1948, implemented by the new military organization, the Western European Union (WEU), enshrined the idea of coming to the aid of another contracting party if under attack. In the late 1960s, the European Community began to explore ways to harmonize Member States’ foreign policies. The concept of European Political Cooperation was presented in the 1970 Davignon Report, which created specific processes aimed at facilitating cooperation between states. Then, a set of legal rules concerning political cooperation between Member States was introduced in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, based on the WEU as the military arm of the EU. However, at this stage collective defence and foreign policy remained largely theoretical.

It was not until the 2009 Lisbon Treaty that things really kicked off. With its entry into force, the Common Security and Defense Policy (CFSP) and the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy were established. Eventually, a series of pivotal tasks were formally endorsed by the Union. Among them, there are “joint disarmament operations, humanitarian and rescue tasks conflict prevention”.

A single voice for Europe?

In recent years, we have had some good examples of a coordinated, common approach to foreign policy issues under the leadership of Federica Mogherini, who was mandated to prepare a new global strategy on foreign policy, with the perspective and focus to promote EU external action. One of her main achievements was, without a doubt, the nuclear deal with Iran. The High Representative, representing the EU as a whole, played a crucial role in the making of this agreement, alongside the P5 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council).

However, in many other situations, the EU’s reaction has been weak. In the case of Ukraine, for example, the EU failed to take a clear stance on the annexation of Crimea, which is considered to be the most serious violation of a European state’s borders and integrity since WW2. The EU was and remains a “passive bystander” in many international conflicts. Rapid, concerted action tends to be the exception.

A single voice for Europe in the current globalized and challenging context – where populist stances are gaining momentum – is needed more than ever. The EU, more than European states alone, can be influential, and perhaps in some spheres leading, in the international arena. Moreover, the majority of today’s hurdles are global, and cannot be dealt with fully or effectively from a position of national sovereignty. The EU, as a global actor, has the fundamental responsibility to act in the face of ongoing problems and conflicts.

A tricky path

The path to an integrated and common foreign approach is however long and arduous. There are both legal and political obstacles.

First of all, the legal frame currently in force hinders the creation of a real united foreign and defence policy. The CFSP remains, in fact, a mere intergovernmental mechanism rather than a community-building tool. Decisions in this policy field, according to the Treaty, “shall be taken by the European Council and the Council acting unanimously”. The Heads of States and Governments in the European Council are responsible for laying out the strategic interests and objectives of the Union and, if a question is not dealt with at the top level, ministers may establish the Union position, subject to unanimity. Unanimity is the rule: any decision in this field can be blocked by any single state. This legal inflexibility undermines the EU’s efforts to act as a collective actor in important international conflicts.

A solution would be to abolish the unanimity rule within the CFSP. Prominent voices have been calling for such a step to be taken. Ex-Commission President Juncker stated that he would have liked to broaden the scope of qualified majority voting in the CFSP, especially on positions involving human rights concerns. He asserted that this would render the Union more “weltpolitikfähig” (“capable of world politics).

Nonetheless, the introduction of qualified majority would require that several conditions are met. First, there should be a sense of collective purpose and community amongst Member States. Single European states - Germany, France - would need to accept that they may be outvoted on individual questions. The difficulty of finding consensus in those delicate matters is reflected in the recurring discussions about issues such as sanctions against Russia or the approach to be taken with Israel. Second, where would the legitimacy come from? The perception of the EU’s democratic deficit is widespread. Extending it to the foreign policy field is audacious and risky. It is true that a solution would be to introduce a stronger control by the European Parliament alongside the change in the voting rules. But new rules cannot be applied lock, stock and barrel to the CFSP: a revision of the Treaty and consequent ratification in national parliaments is necessary. Third, to be a competitive and authoritative international actor means to be externally credible. Speaking with one voice on foreign and security policy is a challenge, and, if states feel they are outvoted on crucial decisions such as the future policy towards China, the US and Russia, they may publicly undermine the EU’s reputation as a community.

Overall, a change from unanimity to qualified majority requires approval, consent, a profound sense of unity between Member States. Legitimacy is given where only willing Member States engage. Would Member States give up their individual identity in the international fora and exclusive competence in foreign policy? Well, when German Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz proposed to France to turn its seat at the UN Security Council into a joint EU seat, the French response was: “Non, merci”.

The issue is highly controversial and, while the question of how to achieve a geostrategic coherence in a strong and democratic way is compelling, it seems not to be on the Member States’ agenda.

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