The European Union (EU) is still a relatively recent arrival on the international scene. With its great potential in economic terms but gaping deficits in other domains such as hard security, the scope of its international ambitions remains uncertain. Sometimes it presents itself rather grandiosely as an anchor of global stability, at other times its horizon does not seem to extend much beyond the surrounding regions.

As a new foreign policy leadership team took the helm in Brussels at the end of 2014, this is an appropriate time to examine the global and regional dimensions of the EU’s external action in detail.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
More >

The way eight of the EU’s instruments are deployed around the globe sheds some light on the global and regional footprints of the union’s external action and shows where it places special emphasis and where it is largely absent. Three of the tools are traditional means of EU diplomacy: visits of the EU’s top leaders; declarations of the high representative, the union’s foreign policy chief; as well as conclusions of the European Council and of the foreign ministers’ council. Next are four important types of operational engagement, namely sanctions, civilian and military operations, trade, and EU assistance. The final instrument considered is the size of EU delegations, which represent a significant part of the infrastructure of the EU’s external policies.

The picture is of course incomplete, as some relevant aspects of external relations are not covered. Multilateral diplomacy, for instance, is certainly an important part of EU foreign policy, but it cannot be quantified in the same way.

Nevertheless, the analysis shows that in some respects, the EU’s perspective and action are clearly global in nature. However, its highest level of engagement concerns its neighboring regions, and some indicators show a special responsibility toward Africa.

Visits of the EU’s Top Officials

Useful gauges of the union’s priorities are the missions undertaken by the president of the European Council, the EU’s highest official in protocol terms; the president of the European Commission, who oversees the commission’s important external relations competencies such as trade and aid; and the high representative, who is the EU’s equivalent of a foreign minister. In this case, the trips were taken between 2010 and 2014 by then president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, then European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, and then high representative for foreign affairs and security policy Catherine Ashton, and they included participation in multilateral summits as well as bilateral visits. The numbers of visits indicate the strength of relationships with partner countries but also which countries presented particular headaches for the EU. All in all, the data show that the EU had a global view but paid significant attention to its neighborhood.

The data reveal a particularly strong relationship with the United States, which received 35 of a total 339 visits (though that number is distorted to some extent as it also includes trips to the United Nations headquarters in New York). Russia came second with 18 visits, well ahead of Turkey with 14 and China with 10.

Crisis management was an important driver of high-level visits. This explains the relatively large number of trips to Egypt (17), which experienced massive turmoil during the Arab Spring. Israel and Palestine, a permanent venue of (not very successful) EU crisis management efforts, were also visited often (20 times combined). And Serbia (with 10 visits) was a key priority for Catherine Ashton, who achieved significant progress in normalizing the country’s relationship with Kosovo.

In terms of regional distribution, EU leaders visited the Balkans, Turkey, and Eastern Europe—including Russia and the Caucasus—most often (95 visits). They also frequently traveled to Arab countries and Israel (78), as well as Asia (65). Different from a number of other indicators, which demonstrate a special emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa, that area was not a particularly popular destination for visits (23). Eighteen trips were taken to Central and South American countries.

Declarations of the High Representative

The high representative’s declarations show what is on the EU’s radar screen. Adopting a declaration is the primary way the union responds to international developments, including terrorist attacks, military coups, human rights violations, election results, international negotiations, and conferences.

Declarations are certainly meant to influence international developments, but they are frequently just as much a response to the concerns of EU audiences. They can be of crucial importance when they represent the EU’s first political response to a new foreign policy challenge. But they are often purely routine repetition of established EU positions. The typical declaration expresses a view concerning an event—it “condemns acts of violence” or “applauds an agreement reached,” for instance. Then it proposes a course of action favored by the union—such as “refrain from the use of force” or “enter into dialogue.”

Declarations are the bread and butter of EU foreign policy. During the period from January 2010 to October 2014, the high representative adopted 1,022 declarations that referred to particular countries. This amounted to 4 on average weekly. In the final months of Catherine Ashton’s term, the numbers dropped significantly, which can be read as indicating a certain amount of disengagement.

Traditionally, a large part of these statements were adopted “on behalf of the EU member states,” meaning that they were negotiated among the member states. This practice almost disappeared under Catherine Ashton. During her tenure, statements were usually proposed by the relevant geographic department of the EU’s foreign policy arm—the European External Action Service—screened by the cabinet, and adopted solely on the authority of the high representative.

Analysis of those declarations indicates that while the EU certainly responded to events across the globe, nearby developments figured more prominently. Close to two-thirds of the declarations concerned events in the neighboring regions. The Arab Spring and its consequences clearly dominated this dimension of EU foreign policy. Almost half of the declarations (478) referred to Arab states (including the Palestinian-Israeli problem). Syria alone was the subject of 182 declarations, followed by Libya with 107, and Egypt with 60.

Developments in Asia were the subject of declarations 205 times, with 89 devoted to Iran, whose nuclear program was the subject of international negotiations chaired by Catherine Ashton. Sub-Saharan African events figured 125 times in declarations, with the crises in Niger, Nigeria, and Sudan receiving the most attention.

The Balkans, Turkey, Russia and Eastern Europe, where tensions over Ukraine increased during the latter part of Ashton’s mandate, also attracted considerable attention (149 declarations). Central and South American countries were mentioned only 26 times.

Conclusions of the European Council and of the Foreign Affairs Council

Conclusions of the European Council and of the foreign ministers’ council also reflect the EU’s responses to current challenges.

According to the Lisbon Treaty—which established the EU’s current legal framework in 2009—the European Council, made up of the heads of state and government from member states, is the topmost EU body in the area of foreign policy. It traditionally meets four times annually, but in recent years it has met a great deal more often. EU foreign ministers normally come together once a month, though in special circumstances other meetings are held. Under the treaty, the responsibility for proposing the agenda of the European Council and also the draft conclusions lies with its permanent president, whereas in the Foreign Affairs Council the high representative fulfills these functions.

Both of these efforts entail a higher degree of engagement than declarations because they involve the difficult collective formulation of a policy toward a country or crisis. Preparing conclusions among 28 member states usually involves painstaking negotiations at different levels of preparatory bodies, so these texts reflect a stronger interest in an issue than the adoption of a declaration. Therefore, they are a better indicator of the regional priorities of EU foreign policy.

The data confirm that during the 2010–2014 period, developments in the Arab world were the top preoccupation of the EU, with 127 conclusions representing 42 percent of the total. By far the greatest attention was devoted to Syria, which figured 34 times in European Council and Foreign Affairs Council conclusions. Sub-Saharan Africa was also very much in the focus of EU foreign policy with 58 conclusions.

The much higher share of conclusions concerning sub-Saharan Africa compared with declarations of the high representative, 21 percent to 12 percent, respectively, is interesting. It probably reflects the lobbying efforts of member states with particular interests on this continent. The Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia, and Sudan were the crisis areas in sub-Saharan Africa most frequently addressed.

The Balkans, Turkey, and Eastern Europe were the subject of 52 conclusions, followed by Asia with 42. A single conclusion text referred to a country in the Americas, Haiti.

Direct Engagement

Sanctions, civilian and military operations, trade, and development assistance represent important types of direct engagement.


In recent years, sanctions have increasingly become the main EU instruments to address situations of crisis or major violations of human rights. Indeed, a striking number of countries are targeted by EU sanctions under the Common Foreign and Security Policy. As of July 2014, 30 states were subject to some kind of sanctions—16 percent of United Nations member states.

In the 1990s, many EU sanctions were based on United Nations decisions, but currently the union decides most restrictive measures autonomously, albeit in parallel with U.S. sanctions decisions. Most frequently, arms embargoes are adopted against countries involved in armed conflicts. Visa bans and asset freezes directed against representatives of regimes are typical responses to violations of democratic principles and human rights. And in a few cases, such as Iran, Syria, and most recently Russia, the EU has established broad sanctions regimes involving particular economic measures in the financial and energy sectors.

In geographic terms, this is clearly an area where EU action has global reach. EU sanctions target Myanmar, North Korea, and even China since the arms embargo imposed after the Tiananmen Square incidents of 1989. However, here too there is a special emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa (10 states under sanctions), Eastern Europe and the Balkans (7), and the Arab world (6).

Civilian and Military Operations

Sending soldiers or police officers abroad represents one of the most serious and expensive types of EU engagement, even though the majority of operations are relatively small in scale. Since European security and defense structures became operational in 2002, the EU has undertaken roughly 30 civilian and military missions.

Two-thirds of missions that were ongoing as of July 2014 were civilian in character, usually police and rule of law missions. Of the 5 military missions, 2—in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Central African Republic—served peacekeeping purposes; another 2, in Mali and Somalia, were training missions; and 1 naval operation was aimed at combating piracy off the Horn of Africa.

The distribution of these operations demonstrates the particular focus of the EU’s foreign and security policy on the neighborhood and on Africa. No less than 16 of the 30 ongoing or completed operations have taken place in African states, with most of the rest occurring in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Only two of the operations undertaken so far concerned another continent, namely the 2005–2006 Aceh operation in Indonesia and the police mission to Afghanistan initiated in 2007.

EU Assistance per Capita

The EU has long been the largest donor of development assistance in the world. Altogether, annual expenditures provided for the period of 2014–2020 amount to about €14 billion (approximately $17 billion as of late 2014).

General patterns emerge when assistance is analyzed on a per capita basis (which has the disadvantage that countries with extremely small populations end up with exorbitantly high rates). EU assistance goes to very distant countries, but the level of aid is significantly higher for neighboring regions—concentrated on the Balkans, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. There is also a particular emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa.

Trade Agreements

Accounting for about 16 percent of overall trade in goods and services, the EU is collectively the biggest trading power in the world. Trade is also an area where the EU has particularly strong powers under the framework of its common commercial policy. The European Commission negotiates bilateral, regional, and multilateral trade agreements; monitors their implementation; and deals with any unfair practices.

In this area, the EU is a truly global actor. Indeed, most of the world is covered by existing or planned preferential trade agreements. Australia, China, and Russia are notable exceptions.

The large number of states with which trade negotiations are ongoing or agreements are awaiting official conclusions shows that this is a particularly dynamic area of EU activities. With the weakening of the multilateral trade regime, there is a clear tendency toward concluding bilateral or regional trade deals.

Size of EU Delegations

Over the decades, the European Commission has built up a large network of delegations. Initially these delegations dealt with the commission’s external relations, primarily in trade and assistance. Following the Lisbon Treaty reforms, delegations assumed the political functions that had traditionally been dealt with by the embassy of the country that held the European Council presidency.

Currently, the EU has about 140 delegations—the network is clearly global in scope. Only the biggest EU member states—such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—have a more extensive network.

There are essentially two factors determining the size of the mission. The first is the overall political importance of the relationship with a third country. Thus, Beijing, Moscow, and Washington all host large EU missions with close to 100 officials. The second is the level of EU assistance to a given country, which plays an even greater role. The staff of the delegations includes about two-thirds commission officials, most of them working on assistance projects. Turkey—where both political importance and a huge assistance program come together—therefore hosts the largest EU delegation, with 140 staff members. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Kenya, and Ukraine are also large aid recipients and have missions that are about as large as those in China, Russia, and the United States.

In fact, with the exception of the major strategic partners of the union, the size of the EU’s missions follows a similar regional distribution as that for assistance. There is a particular emphasis on the EU’s neighboring regions and on sub-Saharan Africa.


Looking at the regional application of eight of the EU’s most important foreign policy instruments renders a complex picture: The single respect in which the EU’s international action is truly global is trade. EU trade agreements span the world, and some distant countries such as South Korea and Canada have much more advanced trade regimes with the EU than with their neighboring states. Regarding other operational instruments, such as economic assistance or sanctions, the EU’s action clearly has global reach, but these tools are used more intensively in neighboring regions and sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere. This regional bias is even more evident with respect to civilian and military operations. All but 2 of the 30 operations undertaken as of July 2014 were deployed in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

The EU’s diplomatic network, which forms part of the infrastructure for this operational engagement, encompasses the entire world. As the importance of the assistance program provided to a given state is a major factor in determining the size of the mission, the EU’s diplomatic deployment again favors neighboring regions and sub-Saharan Africa.

The use of traditional diplomatic instruments such as visits by the top leaders, declarations of the high representative, and conclusions of the European Council and Foreign Affairs Council reflects to a large extent the major external challenges of the time. The Arab Spring and its consequences clearly dominated the 2010¬–2014 agenda. However, the data indicate that the EU also followed developments in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East more actively and systematically than events in other parts of the world. The high number of council conclusions concerning African crises confirms the particular ties of the EU to this continent.

The data regarding the travel patterns of the EU leaders tell a slightly different story. They indicate a marked preference for the neighborhood but equally show a strong priority for the relations with the major global powers. Compared to most other indicators, it is interesting that EU leaders did not travel to Africa a lot but visited Asian capitals quite frequently.

At the present stage in the development of its foreign policy, the EU is clearly both a global actor with some key strengths and severe limitations and a regional power with a considerable array of instruments deployed over a fairly broad neighborhood. In light of the rise of Asia and the emergence of a multipolar world, the EU will face increasing competition on the global level and in its own neighborhood.

A certain bias in favor of the neighborhood will probably continue for a long time. After all, these are the regions where most of the EU’s interests are at stake and where it has by far the greatest leverage.

Whether the union will be able to gradually extend its reach into more distant regions as well will depend on its economic dynamism and on whether its member states are ready to invest more in the common foreign policy. As their weights as individuals will inevitably decline in the coming years, the 28 will have to do more together to remain in the game and protect their collective interests.


Irini Tseminidou is a development and research analyst at Carnegie Europe.