The central hurdles to a common EU foreign policy

There are several barriers for establishing a single foreign policy for the EU that is currently composed of 28 nations, with total population of over 500 million, and with each nation having a wide range of differences related to their history, economy, military power, political geography and influence, culture and aspirations. On every major foreign policy and security-policy issue, the countries of the EU can only gain from coordinating their efforts. Thus it is somewhat ironic that the EU is lacking a common foreign policy. The fundamental question is whether the EU can achieve sufficient security integration following disagreements over several recent conflicts, such as the Iraq war, the Balkan conflicts, the Afghanistan war, and the Libya crisis.

A common EU foreign policy would be favorable since it would enhance the strategic, economic, and financial interests of the EU. European foreign and defense policies have developed throughout the recent decades from European Political Cooperation (EPC) to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) that was established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. However, the European decision-making process is not sufficiently centralized for rapid response or action. As the EU has grown in recent decades, there has been a large amount of integration between member nations in economic, political, and judicial issues, as well as in immigration affairs. However, foreign policy integration has not yielded a common voice with all 28 nations controlling their own foreign relations. Although it has been recognized that the EU would hold more influence and weight as a single bloc, there has been extreme difficulty in creating a common foreign policy and single voice in the EU to enforce this policy.

Some of the major obstacles against an effective decision-making process for the EU in foreign policy are as follows. First, some EU members (France Portugal, Spain, UK) have a history of colonial relationships with other countries, which influence their views related to a unified EU policy. EU members such as France and the UK have been actively competing for influence in Africa.

Second, countries such as Austria, Finland, and Sweden are neutral and not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For example, the delicate relationship of Finland with its often-aggressive neighbor (Soviet Union and now Russia) inevitably enters into the political considerations of this country. This also influences the views and considerations of these neutral countries on foreign policy. On the other hand, countries that were dominated by the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) advocate stronger opposition against an aggressive Russia, as compared to Germany and Italy that have important economic relations with Russia, which is a major gas provider to these countries.

Third, some major countries (France and the UK) hold permanent seats on the UN Security Council, and this may interfere with developing a common EU foreign policy (they are not about relinquishing or diluting their national voice and representing the EU as a whole). These powerful member states dominate agendas and trends in policy issues.

As well, the three big EU members (UK, Germany and France) are not always united in their foreign policies further complicating the process. For example, while the UK (together with many other EU members) supported the US war on Iraq, France and Germany (together with Austria, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, and Greece) opposed the war in Iraq in 2003. On the other hand, France and the UK led the military intervention in Libya in 2011, but Germany did not support them.

Each of these three big countries have their policies related to international conflicts. German policy typically has a strong pacifist leaning due to recent German history, and thus most Germans opposed both the war in Iraq in 2003 and later in Libya in 2011. France’s policy is to strengthen ties and promote its economic interests in the Middle East. The UK would be supportive of the war based on its close ties with the USA. The rivalry between two leading nations of the EU, the UK and France, has a long history of wars and conquest. The historical divergence in interest and policies has led to several major wars. However, since the beginning of the 1900’s, peace has generally prevailed between these two powers, although they have remained far apart in their views on foreign policy, as the UK has continued to pursue close ties with the USA, while France has chosen to be more independent in its policies. With these three major nations in the EU having differences in their foreign policy, one can understand the difficulty for the EU to create a common foreign policy, and this is not even taking into account the various perspectives of the other 25 members of the EU.

Fourth, a relatively recent addition of several states with their specific foreign policy issues and interests further complicates establishing a single foreign policy. For countries such as Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, the important issues and potential threats are related to their past and present relationships with Russia.

Considering that unanimity is required for the adoption of decisions or actions by the EU, it is typically very difficult and time-consuming to arrive at a common view, as EU member states have different views and perspectives on foreign policy issues.There are many historically divergent views, priorities and policies, as well as conflicting political and economic interests. It is hard to reconcile centuries of division in a relatively short period of existence of the EU. The challenge is to unify 28 national voices into one coherent course of action. As many issues related to foreign affairs require a fast response, all these hurdles make the EU’s foreign policy inefficient.

In the final analysis, the main hurdles in formulating a coherent and effective common foreign policy is that the EU is a collection of diverse countries, with different cultures and political and economic systems. In foreign affairs, internal factors overweigh any possible desire for common and shared interests leading to a single foreign policy. The national governments of EU members have been very unwilling to entrust decision making power in foreign policy to supranational EU institutions. There has been a slow erosion of support for a unified Europe and recent elections in different countries throughout Europe have shown a rise of far right movements, accompanied with the rise of anti-integration sentiments. With such trends, the question is not whether the European Union can maintain a common foreign policy, but whether the European Union in the current form survives at all.