External (In)Action: Europeans’ Growing Demand for Strong EU Foreign Policy

Written by | Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019

European policymaking is forever on the cusp of improvement. Every five years, a newly appointed high representative for foreign affairs and security policy takes over, declaring that coherence is just around the corner. As Javier Solana advised his successor in the role in 2009: “our capacity to address the challenges has evolved over the past five years, and must continue to do so. We must strengthen our own coherence, through better institutional co-ordination and more strategic decision-making.” A decade later, another Spaniard – Josep Borrell – is set to take up the mantle of high representative.

Believing that the situation has become worse, Borrell once likened the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union to a “valley of tears” in which foreign ministers lament multiple crises around the world but remain incapable of decisive collective action. The ministers believe that their domestic political constituencies require them to act as states first – and as part of a union only after this. The rise of nationalist and anti-system parties across the Western world in the past decade has reinforced this unspoken perception among EU governments – creating the risk that these governments will never truly fulfil their ambitions to establish a collective EU foreign policy.

Policymakers have endeavoured to work around this systemic handicap by creating a more flexible Europe – one that creates coalitions of willing states that pursue specific policy goals on behalf of the union, which resulted, for example, in the Kosovo-Serbia agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. However, this approach has not overcome the fundamental impasse that is is due to the enduring perception that a genuine EU foreign policy would unsettle voters in member states. At the same time, many foreign policy issues have become increasingly politicised across the EU: in the run-up to national elections, many member states have engaged in genuine debates on the bloc’s approach to Russia and the transatlantic relationship.

But is this perception really accurate? A recent study carried out by YouGov, and commissioned by European Council on Foreign Relations, covering more than 60,000 people across Europe, has revealed a fundamental shift in Europeans’ views of the world. Although there is widespread public support for the idea of the EU becoming a cohesive global actor, there is also a growing divergence between the public and the foreign policy community on several key issues – ranging from trade and the transatlantic relationship to EU enlargement. Given this divergence, there is a risk that European voters could retract the foreign policy mandate they have offered the EU in the choices they made in recent European Parliament and national elections.

European voters believe that there is a growing case for a more coherent and effective EU foreign policy in a dangerous, competitive world. Therefore, they want to see the European Union come of age as a geopolitical actor and chart its own course. But policymakers will have to earn the right to enhance the EU’s foreign policy power, by producing tangible results and heeding the messages voters have sent them. Most EU citizens believe that they are living in an EU in which they can no longer rely on the US security guarantee, and that the enlargement process should be halted. Importantly, they believe that it is crucial to address existential challenges – such as climate change and migration – at the European level. And it is now the new leadership of the EU’s institutions who should allow these political impulses to guide their approach to foreign affairs.

‚Give the People What They Want: Popular Demand for a Strong European Foreign Policy‘ – Policy Brief by Susi Dennison – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

The Policy Brief can be downloaded here

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