Nations can have an active or a passive foreign policy, they can be warlike or pacifist, but undoubtedly they are actors on the international scene, i.e. they influence international developments in accordance with their values and interests. The European Union’s foreign policy system is less straightforward. The member states have committed themselves to pursuing certain objectives together in the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, but at the same time continue to run their own national foreign policies. As an international actor the EU complements but does not replace the 27 individual actors making up its membership. The EU’s status as an actor – its “actorness” - is therefore not a given but an open question and indeed the subject of a lively theoretical debate.

It is useful to differentiate between the outside dimension of “actorness” and the inside view. Foreign countries that negotiate trade agreements with the EU, receive aid or are the objects of sanctions obviously experience the EU as an actor. They might at times try to sideline the common EU institutions by dealing directly with capitals of member states, but the reality of the EU as a relevant factor in international relations is not in doubt. The internal dimension of the problem is more complex as it reflects the dialectic relationship between the national foreign policies of member states and the collective one of the EU.

The Hybrid Nature of EU Foreign Policy

Member states can look at the EU’s foreign policy as a set of instruments to be used for the purposes of their own national foreign policy, but they can also perceive themselves as constituent part of the EU as an international actor in its own right. Generally, their approach will comprehend a mix of both attitudes. Member states will look at the EU more in terms of a toolbox when priority issues of national foreign policy are concerned. Thus France, for many years – it is no longer so evident today – used the mechanisms of the EU’s foreign and development policies to assist and reinforce its own policies in West Africa; Portugal lobbied for action on its former colony, East Timor, and the Baltic states sensitized their partners to Russia’s bullying behavior. In these cases the member states use the EU as a diplomatic force multiplier. By putting the weight of the EU behind their concerns and interests they improve their chances of getting their way. Even in the ideal case, when their national policy becomes an official EU position the national foreign policy perspective will always prevail.

In areas where specific national interests do not dominate, the internal dynamic of EU foreign policy making is quite different. Decades of close consultation within common institutions had a strong socialization effect on the foreign policy elites in the EU. Particularly in the medium sized and smaller member states a major part of the activities of the foreign ministries today concerns participation in EU working groups, preparing ministerial meetings and sending and receiving information through EU networks. All this has led to an instinctive “EU reflex”. When a new challenge arises, the first question will usually be: What do EU partners and EU institutions think about this? Thus, the process of formulating positions on new foreign policy challenges hardly ever takes place in isolation but normally within the context of the institutionalized coordination of the EU. As a result the borderlines between national and EU foreign policy have gradually become blurred and the latter is often perceived as the natural extension of the former.

This effect is reinforced by the hybrid nature of EU foreign policy. While its foreign policy structures remain intergovernmental and rather similar to traditional international organizations such as the Council of Europe or the OSCE, EU foreign policy still benefits from the much stronger identity building effect of the deeper integration in other fields. Sharing in a common market, in the case of many countries also in monetary union and the Schengen space creates bonds of solidarity that underpin also the looser foreign policy cooperation. As the external dimension of a deeply integrated entity EU foreign policy goes well beyond traditional international organizations. But in view of its intergovernmental character it is also the “weakest link” in the chain of EU activities. For some this is a severe shortcoming, for others a cause to celebrate the greater freedom of action of member states.

A Broad Spectrum

In fact there are significant differences in the attitudes of member states. At one end of the spectrum would be a member state like the United Kingdom, which ascribes primacy to its national policy and tends to regard the EU as one of several international fora, which can be made use of in order to pursue national foreign policy objectives. On the other end would be a state like Luxembourg, which has limited national foreign policy ambitions of its own and identifies to a high degree with the EU’s policies, effectively considering itself as a constituent part of a larger foreign policy identity.

Foreign policy traditions, specific interests, and relations with outside powers play an important role in determining a given state’s position on this spectrum. Obviously, there is a strong correlation between a country’s overall attitude to European integration and its readiness to identify with European foreign policy. States with a federalist vision of Europe such as Belgium or Italy are more consistent supporters of the EU as a foreign policy actor than the sovereignty minded countries such as the UK and Denmark. A strong national interest in the success of EU foreign and security policy deriving from an exposed geographic position, - such as that of Finland or Poland, - can also be an important factor for an ambitious approach to EU foreign policy.

It would be a simplification to assume that the large member states, which retain considerable national foreign policy capacity, are all on the “toolbox” end of the spectrum whereas the smaller ones cluster on the “identification” end. For historical reasons Germany for instance identifies to a high degree with European efforts and is thus in principle ready to transfer further important competencies in this field to the European level. Cyprus, by contrast, is one of the smallest member states but has a very large foreign and security policy problem - the division of the island. Accordingly, it perceives its participation in EU foreign policy primarily in terms of this overwhelming national priority and utilizes its leverage relentlessly to pursue its national interests.

The Dangers of Pseudo Engagement

Governments also tend to present EU foreign policy to their electorates as a second larger foreign policy identity to which concerns can be delegated when direct national interests are not in play or national instruments are not usable. Consequently, EU deliberations frequently result in declarations rather than in genuine engagement. The “paper tiger” image that still bedevils EU foreign policy is partly due to the fact that taking an issue to the EU often represents the extent of a government’s readiness to actually do something about it.

The same dynamics also explain why the EU’s collective efforts often look more idealistic than national foreign policies. When member states lack the determination to engage in a serious manner, they often fill the gap with declarations on values. While they cannot or will not resolve a problem, they still feel better having said the right things. Moreover, raising concerns relating to human rights and democratic principles in the context of bilateral relations often involves a cost in terms of this relationship. Particularly with regard to powerful third states such as Russia and China, member states sometimes prefer to leave the “virtuous” work of raising human rights concerns to the EU, while focusing themselves on business. However, when the states in question perceive that the EU policy line does not have the full backing of member states they are unlikely to take it very seriously.

The Risk of Renationalization

From its feeble beginnings in the early 1970s EU foreign and security policy has come a long way. Its institutions have grown, its scope has been expanded and the level of activities continues to increase. In parallel, member states’ readiness to identify with the EU as an actor has also increased. However, this development has not been linear and it is not irreversible.

Setbacks can be caused by divisions over substantive issues such as the one over the Iraq war in 2002 but also by serious problems in the integration process. The ongoing euro crisis has not only undermined the confidence in the future of the EU but has also given rise to tensions among member states and eroded their sense of solidarity. A creeping “renationalization” of foreign policy has set in. Member states are more likely today to take their own national positions and initiatives without coordinating with their partners. These tendencies can certainly be reversed, once the euro crisis has been overcome, but they show the fragility of EU foreign policy. Despite all the reform efforts of past decades member states remain in the driver’s seat. Without their political will and active engagement the project not only cannot move forward, there is always the risk of falling back to a nationally defined foreign policy.

The Remedy of Institutionalization

Despite the crucial importance of the attitude of member states further institutional development of EU foreign policy making can make a difference. In areas of external relations where the Commission is in the lead such as trade, development, enlargement or in the external aspects of internal policies such as environment, justice or home affairs, EU policies carry more punch and have greater identity building effect than in classical foreign and security policy.

The Lisbon reforms aimed at reducing the gap by double-hatting the High Representative also as Vice-president of the Commission and by creating the European External Action Service (EEAS) as a linking element. However, due to restrictive attitudes in the implementation of the Lisbon treaty, only modest progress towards a truly comprehensive approach has been achieved so far. The objective remains nonetheless important. If foreign and security policy and the powerful instruments controlled by the Commission could be brought together more effectively, an important qualitative jump forward could be achieved.

Responding to Globalization

The only factor that has the potential over time to profoundly change the relationship between national and EU foreign policy is the need to adjust to the challenges of globalization. It impacts on EU foreign policy making in two important ways. One effect is the convergence of foreign policy interests among EU member states. As a result of growing interdependence, developments in faraway places can have a greater effect on European interests than ever before. The EU foreign policy agenda that ten years ago still primarily concerned the European neighborhood today encompasses developments across the globe. Moreover, on many of the items that now make up the agenda of Foreign Ministers it is difficult to identify differences in the specific national interests of member states. A military coup in Southern Africa, a humanitarian catastrophe in the Caribbean, tensions in the China Sea have usually similar implications for Lisbon, Dublin, Berlin or Helsinki. As the world is shrinking, so are the differences in the interests of EU member states.

The other consequence of globalization is that individually member states can do rather little about most of the foreign policy challenges arising today. Only in exceptional cases will a European state on its own be able to decisively influence the situation on the ground. As a rule, only collective action on a regional and sometimes on a global level can have a significant impact. As power and economic dynamism shifts to other continents, the ability of European countries – even of the bigger ones among them - to remain relevant players in their own right will further diminish. They will increasingly be faced with a choice: either to resign themselves to a more modest role on the international stage, accepting that the decisions regarding the future global order will be taken by others; or to combine efforts, pool resources and empower strong common institutions to act on their behalf. If this choice is made EU foreign policy could turn from the “weakest link” of EU activities into a powerful force of integration.

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy Centre's Europe in the World.