There is a lot of foreign policy going on in Europe, but not all of it is EU foreign policy. EU foreign policy is external action taken by all 28 member states together, as a shared responsibility, based on a common understanding of the union’s interests and policy goals. Such foreign policy results from a joint decisionmaking process and is underpinned by collective means dedicated to reaching these goals. In other words, it is the foreign policy that the EU promised when it first made external affairs a central item on its agenda in the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, and the policy to which it aspired after the intra-European schisms over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In reality, even after the groundbreaking innovations of the Lisbon Treaty, in force since 2009 with the aim of streamlining EU decisionmaking, foreign policy remains one of the big unfulfilled promises of the European integration process. EU foreign policy may in theory seem the most natural and logical outflow from the sheer necessities created by Europe’s geopolitical realities: all EU nations are small by global standards, their natural resources are limited, their territories are hard to defend, they depend on a global order they are unable to guarantee, and their global stature is diminishing because of the relative rise of non-European, non-Western powers.

Yet in practice, EU external action is a rather tedious affair. The EU has frequently been accused of underperforming as a foreign policy power, meaning that it delivers little when compared to the combined untapped potential of its 28 member states for unified action. This is fair criticism.

The EU’s structural underperformance in classic foreign policy is unlikely to end anytime soon. The bloc is bound to remain an insufficient power for some time to come. Whether the EU can make use of the considerable maneuvering space it has within this role will largely depend on whether it can, at least somewhat, increase its contribution to transatlantic burden sharing, improve its crisis management capacity, and groom its soft power. Much of this, in turn, will depend on Europe’s economic strength—another structural Achilles’ heel in the EU’s current setup.

A Derived and Occasional Power

In its external affairs, the EU is strong really only in one field, and that is trade policy. This is where the EU is fully integrated, where the single market has created a powerful political muscle, and where the member states have delegated their combined bargaining power to the European Commission, creating a strong, unified mandate for joint action. As a consequence, in trade policy, Europe is seen as a power with global weight.

Another field of EU foreign policy strength, at least in principle, is the aid business. The European Commission is a very large donor of development assistance worldwide. When this support is combined with the contributions given by EU member states as part of their own national development policies, Europeans are the world’s biggest donors of aid. The lack of impact in this field has relatively little to do with a lack of integration or an absence of member-state support for the EU institutions. Both are in place. It has more to do with the general failure of Western development aid over the last fifty years and is thus not an EU-specific problem.

If you take trade and aid out of the equation and disregard humanitarian aid, which is not supposed to serve a political goal, then EU foreign policy is a ramshackle affair. What’s left is classic diplomacy. And in classic diplomacy, the EU is not a big power. It is a derived power, because the EU’s diplomatic strength is more often than not derived from that of its biggest ally, the United States, which has the military power to back up its diplomatic efforts and which still guarantees European security by way of U.S. extended deterrence.

The EU is not only a derived power, it is also an occasional power. Only from time to time do the 28 member states have enough of an overlap of interests, a position of genuine political strength, and the willingness to give the EU institutions a strong mandate to act on their behalf. On these occasions, EU foreign policy can be rather successful, as demonstrated by the robust joint reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the EU’s support role in the Iran nuclear negotiations, or the compromise brokered in 2013 to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo. But these occasions are rare.

The strengthened bureaucratic apparatus of EU foreign policy—namely, the permanent presidency of the European Council and the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service, both created by the Lisbon Treaty—has been unable to change the level of the EU’s influence. In the absence of a strong mandate from member states, these institutions lack the executive power needed to conduct real diplomacy and create foreign policy outcomes. As a result, they revert to internal process as opposed to external action. This turn inward is a strategy that the EEAS has amply embraced over recent years, much to its own chagrin, and much to the disappointment of observers worldwide.

It would be easy and misplaced to blame the EEAS and the permanent European Council presidency for this shortcoming. Underfunded and sidelined as they are, theirs are impossible jobs. The fault for this situation lies with the member states, which are not interested in strengthening the Brussels-based institutions at their own expense—least of all in a field as closely tied to notions of sovereignty and national greatness as foreign policy.

A Politico-Moral Delusion

This lack of interest is not just the product of EU nations’ mistrust in Brussels. It is just as much, if not more so, the result of widespread mistrust among the member states, which makes a genuinely joint approach impossible. Most importantly, such apathy is the wider and more fundamental outcome of member states’ collective political and moral delusion about the overall strategic situation they are in.

This delusion rests on four pillars. First, the member states believe that as individual nations, they count for more in international politics than they actually do. This conviction finds its most prominent expression in the UK, where the idea is rather popular that Britain is strong enough to make it on its own in the world, only loosely affiliated with the rest of Europe and more engaged in an Anglosphere consisting of like-minded former colonies.

Second, Europeans have illusions about what they see as the generally benign, cooperative nature of the world around them. This is best illustrated by Germany’s long-standing trust in Russia’s willingness to turn itself into an open, liberal, Western-minded society that is ready, over time, to integrate itself into a European architecture of equal partners. Such illusions are also demonstrated by Germany’s inflated confidence in the UN and underdeveloped sense of the relevance of military power in international affairs—two misperceptions that are shared by more than just a few other European states. Attaching a low priority to military capabilities is not an exclusively German predicament.

Third, Europeans’ unspoken position of taking for granted the U.S. security guarantee for Europe has led to a structural underfunding of European security capabilities, from intelligence services to military capacities. Contrary to verbal commitments and despite frequent American pleas to reverse course, European governments have continued to reduce their military capabilities beyond what would have been a reasonable peace dividend after the end of the Cold War.

This trend has been playing out mostly in the context of NATO, of which 22 of the EU’s 28 nations are members. But it is also an expression of the expectation that the United States will continue to subsidize European public spending preferences. Regardless of whether European priorities are deemed appropriate or not, the attitude of entitlement behind this long-standing practice is unhealthy. To be fair, however, the United States shares some of the blame here, as Washington nurtured this illusion by willingly stepping in for Europe militarily until the French-led intervention in Libya in 2011, when the United States for the first time put into practice President Barack Obama’s foreign policy of leadership from behind.

Fourth, the EU suffers from the delusional idea that it can be a moral superpower just by being what it is. This inflated faith in the character of EU integration as a model for others has often led to moral grandstanding and self-righteousness on behalf of Europeans and the EU. It has also resulted in an exaggerated confidence in the force of soft power and illusions about the willingness or ability of other countries in Europe and even elsewhere to become like the EU. As a consequence, EU foreign policy exhibits an autopilot attitude in which Europeans expect that eventually, all others will end up just like them.

This distorted view has made Europeans blind to the many shortcomings of the EU itself, from hypocrisy over values to the internal institutional and political weaknesses of the integration project. Such weaknesses—including doubts over democratic legitimacy, a lack of political integration to keep the common European currency stable, and disunity on a large variety on issues—have become more obvious in recent years.

It is remarkable how, until mid-2015, the EU was amazingly successful geopolitically with minimum effort on the foreign policy front. But this time has now come to an end. In the crisis of refugees fleeing to Europe from the war-torn Middle East, the EU is for the first time paying a real economic and political price for foreign policy failure. And in the crisis over Ukraine’s future direction, the EU has bitten off more than it can chew politically and now needs to get on with it without too much help from Washington.

So if the old ways do not fit the new challenges, what are the strategies an occasional power can embrace in a more complicated, less safe environment?

Strategies for an Occasional Power

With EU enlargement having essentially been mothballed as a foreign policy tool outside the Western Balkans since the European Commission announced in July 2014 there would be no new accessions before 2019, the union has no instrument of genuine strategic value left in its arsenal. Coercive military power is not what the EU is about, and the offer of access to European markets, that other big carrot with some incentivizing power, has proved too weak to really make a difference. Granting market access is also a tool the EU has been reluctant to use, especially in its Southern neighborhood, because of the concerns of European agricultural and textile industries about cheap competition from the South.

The transformative power of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), the EU’s instrument for relations with sixteen nearby countries, is minimal, leaving few real foreign policy options. By far the most important option will be short-term crisis management.

Improve the EU’s Short-Term Crisis Management Capacity

In the field of crisis resolution, EU military operations like the ones to intervene in conflicts in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Syria point the way. European military engagement will be highly selective, limited in scope, and applied only in exceptionally dire circumstances by an ad hoc coalition of the willing that might even operate completely outside the formal EU framework.

These kinds of operations will not be in the service of larger political goals but will be designed to limit damage and prevent ongoing crises from boiling over. The overall level of ambition of these interventions will be low. They will tend to avoid boots on the ground, and they will likely take place in areas not too distant from Europe. Large peacekeeping and peacemaking operations, such as in the Western Balkans, or even state-building exercises, like in Afghanistan and Iraq, will be less probable scenarios.

For these kinds of unsophisticated firefighting operations, medium-sized expeditionary capabilities will be sufficient, with an emphasis on airpower, military evacuation, and naval capacities. To improve the EU’s short-term crisis management, these capabilities will have to be held in readiness alongside the main forces that will focus on territorial defense duties.

Manage Strategic Dependence

For any international actor that derives its status as an occasional power from its main ally and that depends for its security on that ally’s subsidy, one of the foremost strategic goals must be to keep the relationship with that ally intact. As a consequence, managing the relationship with the United States should be a foreign policy priority for the EU. This is a complex undertaking, made even more complex by the fact that the EU and NATO, the principal organization for administering the U.S. security guarantee in Europe, have overlapping memberships but rather different internal cultures and often do not interact with each other very well.

If the EU accepts its status as a derived and occasional power, as it currently seems to do, it will have to embrace a few realities and policies to make this status sustainable. Europeans will have to accept that they will often, though not always, be on the receiving end of U.S. decisionmaking. The price of weakness is reduced sovereignty over strategic decisions.

To mitigate that weakness, the EU should increase its influence in U.S. decisionmaking by becoming a more powerful diplomatic and hard security player—and supporter. European investment in the EU’s own capacities would make the union less dependent on the United States and would make the EU more interesting and influential as a partner and ally.

The EU should play a bigger part in transatlantic burden sharing, and not only because this would mean a fairer distribution of the costs of European security. Such a move would also free up U.S. assets in and around Europe for use elsewhere in the world. If the EU wants to continue to outsource the protection of its global interests to Washington, as it currently does, then helping the United States provide this protection is the logical conclusion. This is especially true at a time when U.S. resources are more thinly stretched than they used to be.

EU member states should also increase the moral price the United States would have to pay if it decided to loosen its ties to Europe. The idea would be for the EU as a dependent power to endear itself to its protector by supporting it internationally, deepening economic ties, buying into the narrative of liberal Western values, and establishing strong personal relationships so that it becomes morally costly for the ally to turn its back.

And Europeans should invest in the institutional bonds between Europe and the United States, such as NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), international financial institutions, and the World Trade Organization. This includes the much-disputed mechanism of sharing nuclear capabilities inside NATO, a key politico-military scheme that makes Europe an integral part of U.S. nuclear planning and therefore a more influential factor in U.S. extended deterrence. Europeans also need to build new institutional bonds, such as the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). For Europe, TTIP is not just an economic project but also a way to tie itself more closely into a framework of common destiny with the United States.

Learn to Embrace Realpolitik

The EU prides itself on being a values-based organization. But as it is a derived, occasional power, its foreign policy will be guided more likely by realpolitik than by the active and decisive promotion of liberal Western principles such as democracy, human rights, and open markets. This will be rather unpopular, as the public demand for morally acceptable policies, especially in external affairs, has steadily risen in the West in the years since the end of the Cold War.

But the EU’s foreign policy weakness will dictate a diplomatic practice that will accept inconvenient moral compromise far more often than will be deemed desirable. When coercive power is lacking and when powerful incentives cannot be created, moral compromise creeps into foreign policy. This trend is already observable in places such as China, Egypt, Russia, Syria, and Ukraine, all of which are the objects of EU policies that, if held against the EU’s own high-minded standards, violate European values in one way or another. Europeans should be prepared for realpolitik—that much-derided but ever-present concept in international affairs—to increasingly be the guiding principle of their own action.

One indicator of a less idealistically charged approach is the revamped ENP that the EU announced on November 18, 2015. The original approach to the neighborhood was guided by an ambitious transformative agenda built around the idea of a convergence of values between Europe and its neighbors. By contrast, the new mind-set is much more transactional and much less high-minded. The limits of the old approach were all too obvious—its unrealistic agenda, the lack of resources and political support for that agenda, and the low priority attached to ENP issues in general—so the EU lowered its level of ambition vis-à-vis its neighborhood. No one in the EU would openly admit it, but this also means lower moral standards.

More policy changes of that kind will follow. And European leaders will face a tricky dilemma when they try to sell these new policies to ever more critical publics. On the one hand, European publics are reluctant to give their leaders the means to conduct foreign policy from a position of strength, in which fewer compromises have to be made. On the other hand, these publics will criticize their leaders for exactly the kinds of compromises they indirectly force them to accept. For the EU’s foreign policy leaders to be successful, the skill to manage and sell moral compromise will become even more important than it has always been.

An immediate effect of this new reality will perhaps be more toned-down language from EU leaders. As the need for painful realpolitik increases, moral grandstanding will become less credible and more politically costly.

Cultivate the Small Gestures That Go a Long Way

Absent the big foreign policy tools, the EU should apply smaller instruments that have limited impact but make smart use of the EU’s soft power. Among these are all of the so-called access tools the EU might bring to bear, from visa liberalization for nationals of third countries to the partial opening of markets for products from countries that need nudging or deserve rewards.

The EU should also increase its humanitarian aid budgets. Disaster relief and emergency aid are not meant to be foreign policy tools in the narrow sense. Professionals in this field rightly refuse to have their work politicized. Once humanitarian aid becomes openly political—meaning conditional on the recipient’s good behavior—its reach is dramatically curtailed and the negative effect on the donor’s image can be disastrous. But it would be naive to believe that unconditionally granted aid does not have an impact that falls back positively on those who give it.

Finally, the EU should remind itself of its erstwhile mantra of effective multilateralism. Coined as a guiding principle for EU foreign policy in the 2003 European Security Strategy, the idea that the union should develop stronger international ties, lend its strength to global multilateral problem solving, and be a role model for resolving issues among sovereign nations never gained traction in the EU’s diplomatic practices. But the thought still matters. International structures for multilateral decisionmaking need protection and investment. The EU should invest strategically in such forums, both through funding and through better coordination of the EU’s own input into bodies such as the UN Security Council, the OSCE, and international financial institutions.


Being an occasional power is as much a state of affairs as it is a state of mind. Whether the EU can ever become a more unified and more strategically minded player is largely a question of its own self-image. Ultimately, the EU’s status as a foreign policy power will be decided in the heads and hearts of European leaders and citizens.