Why emotions matter in EU foreign policy

Karen E. Smith

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen talks with the Portugese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, the Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, the President of the European Council Charles Michel and the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen during a special European Council summit on February 20, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images).

EU decision-making has often been depicted as technocratic and unemotional, or, as Luuk van Middelaar has put it, ‘de-dramatized’. Emotions are widely seen as having been deliberately removed from intra-EU relations, to avoid the risk that anger could lead to violence or even war. From the early 1970s, EU member states designed a process for cooperating on foreign policy that became increasingly bureaucratized and as such, depoliticized. The kind of ‘foreign policy’ that the EU normally does is not the stuff of high drama, but rather the patient building of long-term, structured relations such as those with African, Caribbean and Pacific states under the Cotonou convention. The EU foreign policy-making process is complex and multi-layered, with decision-shaping and decision-making occurring in multiple forums and with multiple actors. If emotions are ephemeral, then they would not last during the hours, days and weeks in which policy-makers debate and decide, not to mention across the various levels at which these discussions take place (working group, committee, ministerial, head of state or government).

All of the above suggests that the recent ‘emotional turn’ in International Relations and Foreign Policy Analysis would not be of much use in analysing or explaining the processes and outcomes of EU foreign policy-making. My article in International Affairs, however, uses insights from the ‘emotional turn’ literature to illustrate that emotions do play a role in decision-making and implementation of EU foreign policies.

Intergroup emotions theory may help explain how participants within EU decision-making groups could feel emotions as an ‘in-group’. As constructivists point out, EU member states have worked together for decades, and socialization produces coordination reflexes, the perception of common interests, and the growth of collective identification (‘we-feeling’) among the member state representatives. Identification with the group can determine emotional reactions and behaviour, so that an EU decision-making group such as the Foreign Affairs Council could feel emotion such as anger or fear with respect to another group, such as a third country, which could lead to action being taken in response.

A clear case of emotions affecting EU decision-making can be found in its response to a particularly difficult crisis in EU — Russia relations: the downing of MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. On board were 298 people, most of whom were Dutch. The day before the tragedy, the European Council had agreed to extend sanctions against Russia over its intervention in Ukraine; just days later the Foreign Affairs Council strengthened its sanctions considerably. Emotions were reportedly obvious during a Foreign Affairs Council meeting on 22 July, with harrowing accounts from the scene of the crash presented to ministers. The downing of MH17 provoked outrage, prompting member states to take stronger, quicker action against Russia than they had previously been willing to take.

Another promising avenue for investigating the role that emotions could play in EU foreign policy is to look at the implementation of EU foreign policy decisions. Does the EU explicitly display emotions or use emotional language in its declarations? Does the EU engage in what Todd Hall has called ‘emotional diplomacy’? The display of anger, for example, signals that a deeply-held norm has been violated. For the EU, which often touts its image as a normative or ethical power, a failure to display anger in the case of violations of such norms would contradict this image.

My article looks at the extent to which the EU displayed anger at perpetrators and sympathy with victims in two cases of violations of fundamental international norms: Russian intervention in Ukraine in early 2014 and the ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’ in Rakhine, Myanmar in 2017. In both cases the EU engaged in the diplomacy of sympathy and of anger but struggled to match its emotional rhetoric with action — what I call an ‘emotions-action gap’. The emotions the EU projects may fit the image of an actor with a deep attachment to the rule of law internationally, but the lack of substance backing the emotional rhetoric calls this image into doubt.

There are any number of additional cases in which the ‘emotional turn’ in FPA could add value to our understanding of EU foreign policy-making, EU diplomacy and the EU’s international identity. Interviews with EU decision-makers could reveal how they felt about particular events or developments, how their emotions changed over time, and how emotions impacted their decisions. Given that EU foreign policy is usually decided by unanimity, a single member state can affect outcomes. Are (particular) member states ‘uploading’ emotions in the EU foreign policy-making process and affecting decisions? Are member states in turn impacted by the shared emotions within the decision-making groups at the EU level? The numerous videos and other images produced by the EU about its international relations could be analysed for their emotional content — and viewers’ responses to them might provide further insights into the reception of the EU’s international identity. What seems clear is that the assumption of the EU as a dispassionate, emotion-less actor tells only part of the story. By embracing the ‘emotional turn’ researchers can reveal the powerful forces shaping the institution’s external actions.

Karen E. Smith is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Her article, ‘Emotions and EU foreign Policy’ was published in the March 2021 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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