In April 2015, Carnegie Europe published an article that analyzed the global footprint of the EU. Looking at the period of the second European Commission of former president José Manuel Barroso, which ran from February 2010­ to October 2014, the article examined how the union deployed different foreign policy instruments across the world. Now, at the beginning of a new institutional cycle, this article examines developments during the commission of Jean-Claude Juncker, who was president from November 2014 to November 2019.

As in 2015, the present analysis combines traditional tools of EU diplomacy and various forms of operational engagement (see figure 1). Diplomacy includes visits by the EU’s top leaders, declarations by the union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and conclusions of the European Council and the Council of Ministers. Engagement comprises sanctions, civilian and military operations, EU assistance, and trade. The article also looks at the sizes of the union’s overseas delegations and the deployment of EU special representatives.1

These indicators cover only a small part of the EU’s international activities. Multilateral diplomacy, for instance, forms a large part of the union’s external action but cannot be easily quantified. The article does not deal with the many types of structured dialogue that the EU entertains with countries across the world or with its diverse non-trade-related economic activities. The development of other EU instruments, such as recent initiatives to strengthen military cooperation and crisis-response capacity or the 2016 global strategy, go beyond the scope of this study. Still, this analysis offers a clear indication of which countries were the focus of the EU’s attention and where the union engaged operationally.

Change and Continuity in EU Foreign Policy

The EU’s foreign policy agenda has changed considerably over the past ten years. At the time of the second Barroso commission, the focus was clearly on the Arab Spring uprisings that began in late 2010, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, relations between Kosovo and Serbia, and Iran’s nuclear program. The Juncker commission also had to deal with many of these topics, but it faced a broader agenda arising from the disruptive policies of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and the need to respond to the rise of China. The massive flows of refugees and migrants that peaked in 2015–2016 became another dominant subject of EU external policy.

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.
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There were important institutional differences, too. In 2010–2014, much time and energy was absorbed by implementing the foreign policy reforms of the EU’s 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which established the EU’s current legal framework. In particular, the treaty set up the European External Action Service (EEAS), the union’s foreign policy arm. By 2014–2019, then EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy Federica Mogherini had more opportunities to spend time outside Brussels.

The rising dominance of the European Council, which brings together EU heads of state and government, in the field of foreign policy became more apparent under the 2014–2019 presidency of Donald Tusk. He showed a greater interest in international developments than had his predecessor, former European Council president Herman van Rompuy. This shift limited the capacity for initiatives from the high representative and the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, which gathers national foreign ministers.

The cohesion of the EU member states suffered, particularly in 2014–2019, from the divisions and mistrust left by the financial and migration crises. It became increasingly difficult to achieve the unanimity needed to make decisions on foreign policy. And the UK’s 2016 referendum to leave the EU amounted to a severe setback that weakened the union’s position both regionally and globally.

Despite these differences, the two periods also show a good deal of continuity. The overall level of international engagement remained roughly the same. The number of visits of the EU’s top leaders declined, as did the number of declarations by the high representative. By contrast, the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council adopted significantly more conclusions on foreign affairs. The number of countries under EU sanctions stayed about the same. Financial assistance and the sizes of EU delegations increased moderately.

In marked contrast to the emphasis on enhancing military cooperation in the EU’s work in 2014–2019, the union launched only three new operations in this period, and the overall number of deployed military and police personnel declined. Trade policy was more dynamic, with the adoption of six new trade agreements and the start of a number of new trade talks. Altogether, while external policy went through interesting conceptual innovations between 2014 and 2019, the data do not indicate significant progress in operational terms.

Francesco Siccardi
Francesco Siccardi is a senior program manager and senior research analyst at Carnegie Europe.

Just as in 2010–2014, EU trade policy emerged as the only instrument with a truly global reach in 2014–2019. Assistance and sanctions again covered all regions of the world, but with a clear emphasis on neighboring regions and sub-Saharan Africa. (Unless otherwise stated, “neighboring regions” in this article include countries in the EU’s Eastern and Southern neighborhoods, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, and the Western Balkans.) This regional focus was even more evident in all the other instruments analyzed.

However, all indicators measuring the EU’s attention to foreign policy topics—in particular, travel by top officials, declarations by the high representative, and council conclusions—reveal a relative decline in the emphasis on neighboring regions (see figure 2). Instead, the union paid more attention to sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South America.

The authors’ telephone conversations with practitioners in March 2020 indicated three main explanations for this shift from a regional to a global orientation.

First, the conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya all erupted during the second Barroso commission. EU institutions and officials initially followed the unfolding drama on a daily basis and tried—not very successfully—to contribute to political solutions. By the time of the Juncker commission, these three conflicts had turned into permanent crises. They still received significant attention, but much less than before, leaving more space for issues beyond the EU’s neighborhood.

Second, Mogherini had a more global outlook than her predecessor, Catherine Ashton. Mogherini traveled more widely and engaged with regions that had hardly been on the EU’s radar. This found expression in the high representative’s declarations and in council conclusions.

Third, the prominence of the migration challenge in recent years explains the union’s increased attention on Africa. The numbers of visits, declarations, and conclusions, as well as the level of EU assistance to the continent, rose significantly.

Visits of the EU’s Top Officials

The top institutional actors of EU external policy are the president of the European Commission, the president of the European Council, and the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. They interact with their international counterparts in different ways: over the phone, by receiving visitors and convening conferences in Brussels, and by visiting foreign capitals. As they are busy people and international travel is costly and time consuming, their trips are a useful indicator of the priorities of EU foreign policy.

The total number of visits by Juncker, Tusk, and Mogherini in 2014–2019, which includes their participation in multilateral summits, fell slightly on 2010–2014 (see figure 3). This is mainly because Juncker—in stark contrast to his predecessor, Barroso—traveled very little beyond the EU’s borders.

As in the earlier period, the data confirm the EU’s strong relationship with the United States, with forty-one visits—although this number includes trips to the UN headquarters in New York. Japan was the second most visited country, probably because of negotiations on the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement. Russia, ­which was in second place in the previous period, saw a radical decrease in its number of visits—down to two from eighteen in 2010–2014. This fall is due to the EU’s sanctions against Russia following the Ukraine crisis that began in late 2013. By contrast, the EU leaders’ eleven visits to Ukraine testify to the union’s strong engagement to help this country.

Turkey, a crucial and difficult counterpart on both the Syria crisis and migration issues, was visited thirteen times. Egypt remained the most visited country in North Africa, but with significantly fewer trips after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in June 2014: ten in 2014–2019 compared with seventeen in 2010–2014. A similar pattern can be observed with Israel and Palestine, which together were visited only six times, as opposed to twenty in the preceding period. This reflects a tense relationship between the EU institutions and Israel and the continuing deadlock in the Middle East peace process. In the Western Balkans, EU visits remained frequent, with Serbia, Kosovo, and North Macedonia the preferred destinations.

In terms of regional distribution, travel to countries in the EU’s neighborhood accounted for 44 percent of total travel—a reduction from over half in 2010–2014. Asia was the second most popular destination region, representing almost 20 percent of total visits, but with fewer trips than in the previous period. By contrast, EU officials traveled more often to sub-Saharan Africa (twenty-five visits) and to Canada (eight).

Declarations of the High Representative

During Ashton’s tenure, declarations of the high representative were the EU’s preferred way to communicate about international developments. Ashton’s successor, Mogherini, also used this instrument frequently—917 times—but significantly less often. That reflects a greater engagement not only with the mainstream media but also with social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook. For this study, the authors analyzed declarations of the high representative from November 2014 to November 2019 and statements from EEAS spokespeople and press releases that contained quotes by the high representative.

Declarations can have great political importance when they define the EU’s initial response to an emerging crisis or unexpected development, but many simply rehash established EU positions. Three-quarters of Mogherini’s declarations referred to developments in specific countries, while one-fourth cited international negotiations or conferences or annual recurrences, such as Human Rights Day or International Anticorruption Day.

The high representative adopts declarations on their own authority, but they have to be careful to remain in the framework of the EU’s consensus on each issue. The radical decline in the number of declarations on Syria and Libya compared with the previous period probably reflects the fact that these topics were controversial among EU member states.

Despite this decrease, Syria, the Middle East peace process, Turkey, Ukraine, and Libya continued to be among the most recurrent topics in the high representative’s declarations. But a comparison with the earlier period indicates that the EU’s focus gradually shifted away from these regions (see Figure 4). Venezuela was mentioned the second most often in 2014–2019, with overall references to the Americas up to 12 percent of the total from 4 percent in the previous period. Declarations on sub-Saharan African countries increased from 14 percent to 22 percent. Developments in Asia accounted for 12 percent, a share similar to that recorded during Ashton’s tenure.

Altogether, references to events in the EU’s neighboring regions amounted to only 40 percent of all high representative declarations in 2014–2019, against more than 55 percent in 2010–2014.

Conclusions of the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council

Like the declarations of the high representative, the conclusions of the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council reflect the EU’s positions on international events. The main difference lies in the fact that conclusions are negotiated among all member states, usually in a complicated process that involves several layers of preparatory bodies. As they represent the collective views of the EU members, conclusions have greater political weight than declarations. For this study, the authors tracked the numbers of references to non-EU countries in the conclusions of meetings of the European Council and of the Foreign Affairs Council from November 2014 to November 2019.

In the EU’s current legal framework, established in 2009 by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council is the union’s top foreign policy body. During the Juncker commission, it met twenty-one times. EU foreign ministers normally come together as the Foreign Affairs Council once a month, although other meetings are held if the situation requires it. In 2014–2019, the council met seventy-four times.

The conclusions of the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council contained 463 references to non-EU countries in 2014–2019. This was a significant increase on the previous period, when 279 references were recorded, which is quite surprising given that the number of meetings remained roughly the same. One explanation might be that Mogherini, as chair of the Foreign Affairs Council, was particularly averse to controversial debates in the council and therefore put a large number of more consensual topics on the agenda. The fact that in the preceding period the European Council had less time for foreign policy, because it focused almost exclusively on the financial crisis, could also have played a role.

The data show that migration, developments in Syria and Libya, and terrorism in the Levant were among the top preoccupations of EU governments, featuring eighty-seven times in total. The crisis in Ukraine was mentioned twenty-six times (see figure 5). Overall, almost 45 percent of the conclusions concerned events in a neighboring region: as with the high representative’s declarations, this marks a reduction from 55 percent in 2010–2014.

Asia and Latin America received considerably more attention from the EU than in the earlier period, with Venezuela (twelve mentions) and North Korea (eleven) particularly in the spotlight. References to sub-Saharan African states also increased significantly, accounting for 20 percent of the total.

The conclusions show the emergence of new issues, too. Brexit was one of the most frequently mentioned topics after the 2016 UK referendum, as was climate change before and after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 2016 Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Instruments of Direct Engagement

Important types of direct engagement by the EU include sanctions, civilian and military operations, the deployment of special representatives, development assistance, and trade.


Sanctions have become the EU’s primary hard-power instrument, even though they have an uneven record of effectiveness in changing the behavior of the targeted state. Most frequently, the EU adopts arms embargoes against states involved in military conflicts and imposes visa bans and asset freezes on governments responsible for human rights violations. In a few instances, such as with Iran, Russia, and Syria, the EU has established comprehensive sanctions regimes that also target the financial and energy sectors. In past years, the EU’s sanctions policies have been closely coordinated with those of the United States. This cooperation has diminished during the Trump administration.

As of January 2020, thirty-three states were subject to some kind of EU sanctions, as opposed to thirty at the end of the union’s previous institutional cycle in 2014. During the term of the Juncker Commission new sanctions were imposed on Burundi, Mali, Nicaragua, Turkey, Venezuela, and Yemen. Sanctions against Eritrea, Ivory Coast, and Liberia were lifted.

In geographic terms, sanctions clearly represent an area where EU action has global reach. However, here too, there is an emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Western Balkans.

Civilian and Military Operations

Since the European Security and Defense Policy became operational in 2002, the EU has undertaken thirty-five civilian and military missions. Most of them have been relatively small in scale and of limited ambition.

Growing instability in the EU’s neighborhood has reignited the union’s interest in military cooperation. Particularly under the Juncker commission, the EU launched many initiatives to boost capabilities and enhance cooperation in this area, with the aim of achieving strategic autonomy. But considerable progress in the development of policy has not yet led to the launch of more ambitious operations.

As of January 2020, seventeen missions were ongoing and approximately 5,000 personnel were deployed. Compared to 2015, this is approximately the same number of missions, but the number of deployed personnel decreased from 6,000 in 2015. While nine missions were initiated under Ashton, only three started under Mogherini.

Of the seventeen missions active in January 2020, eleven were civilian, mostly police and rule-of-law operations. Of the six military missions, one—in Bosnia and Herzegovina—served peacekeeping purposes; three—in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Somalia—were training missions; and two were naval missions. The Somalia mission, Operation Atalanta, aimed at combating piracy off the Horn of Africa, while the naval mission Operation Sophia sought to identify, capture, and dispose of vessels used by migrant smugglers or traffickers in the Mediterranean.

The distribution of these operations demonstrates the particular focus of EU foreign and security policy on the neighborhood and Africa. Seventeen of the thirty-five ongoing or completed operations have taken place in African states, with most of the rest occurring in the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East.

EU Special Representatives

The appointment of EU special representatives is another tool of direct engagement with certain regions or on certain policy priorities. The EU has appointed sixteen special representatives since 1999 (see table). Since 2009, they have been nominated by the European Council on a proposal from the high representative.

There is an ongoing debate between the EEAS and the member states about whether EU special representatives should be seen as instruments primarily of the high representative or of the member states. This dispute is probably the reason why so few of them have been appointed in recent years. By contrast, other major international actors, such as the United States or the UN, have many such senior envoys.

The distribution once again demonstrates a focus on Africa and the EU’s neighborhood. Five of the sixteen special representatives have dealt with Africa-related issues; six with countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans; and three with the Middle East.

Development Assistance

The EU, with its member states, is the world’s largest donor of development assistance. Under the union’s 2014–2020 budget, the collective development assistance spending of the EU institutions amounted to approximately €14 billion ($15 billion) a year. This figure is projected to increase in the 2021–2027 budget, which is under negotiation as of this writing. The European Commission has proposed a 30 percent increase in funding for EU external action, but many member states take a more restrictive approach.

In 2018, the latest year for which data are available, almost 40 percent of total spending went to sub-Saharan Africa (see figure 6). This was followed by the Middle East (26 percent) and the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe (12 percent).

If per capita spending is considered, and countries with extremely small populations are ignored to avoid distorted results, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Georgia had the highest concentrations of EU assistance in 2018. Altogether, the level of EU aid on a per capita basis is significantly higher for the union’s neighboring regions than for other parts of the world.

Trade Agreements

The EU is the world’s biggest trading power, accounting for approximately 17 percent of global trade in goods and services in 2018. External trade in goods and services represented about 35 percent of the EU’s gross domestic product in 2018. Trade is an area in which the EU speaks with one voice because the union’s Common Commercial Policy empowers the commission to negotiate trade agreements, monitor their implementation, and respond to unfair trade practices. On trade, the EU is a genuine global actor: it either has concluded or is planning to conclude trade agreements with most countries of the world.

Trade policy used to be a matter for technocrats but achieved a high political profile during the years of the Juncker commission. First, the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the United States and the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement ran into massive public protests. Then, the entry into force of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine was delayed when the Netherlands voted against it in a referendum in April 2016.

One might have expected widespread public resistance to further trade liberalization to dampen the EU’s appetite for new agreements. But aggressive U.S. trade policies under the Trump administration, together with a crisis of the multilateral trade system centered on the World Trade Organization, prompted the EU to maintain its efforts to negotiate trade agreements with countries and regions across the world. The Juncker commission concluded six such accords, with Canada, Japan, Mexico, Singapore, southern African countries, and Vietnam. Twelve new trade negotiations were initiated during this time, the same number as in the preceding period.

Size of EU Delegations

As of December 2019, the EU had 141 delegations around the world employing 5,799 staffers, including officials of the EEAS and the European Commission and local agents. Before the Lisbon Treaty reforms, this network essentially dealt with trade and development assistance. Since 2009, the EU delegations have expanded their role and are now the main interlocutors between the union and the host states, including on political matters. More recently, the EU has also sent military attachés and antiterrorism experts to join the delegations.

The political importance of the union’s relationship with a country is one of the main factors behind the size of a delegation. Beijing and Washington, for example, host large EU missions with close to 100 officials. By contrast, the deterioration of relations with Russia has resulted in a reduction of the size of the EU delegation in Moscow by almost a third.

A second factor is the level of EU assistance to the host country. About two-thirds of the staff in the delegations are commission officials, most of whom work on assistance projects. Turkey—where political importance and a huge assistance program come together—hosted in December 2019 the largest EU delegation, with 175 staffers. That is a 25 percent increase on the level in December 2013, mainly because of the massive expansion of assistance after the EU and Turkey reached a deal in March 2016 aimed at discouraging refugees from entering the EU.

Overall, the geographic distribution of the delegations follows that of development aid: 25 percent of EU staff abroad are deployed in delegations in the union’s neighboring regions; 35 percent are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Notable changes in 2014–2019 included the doubling in size of the EU delegations to Jordan and Lebanon in response to crises in the Middle East and the steady growth of staff in sub-Saharan Africa.


Analysis of the EU’s use of external policy instruments confirms that the union is a global actor in some respects, such as trade policy, sanctions, and assistance, but that it focuses its engagement mainly on neighboring regions. This regional bias also applies to the indicators of the EU’s attention to international developments: visits, declarations, and council conclusions. Yet in recent years, the union has shown an increased interest in sub-Saharan Africa and, to a more limited extent, other parts of the world.

The comparison between the second Barroso commission and the Juncker commission indicates that the EU’s overall level of engagement with the outside world has remained roughly the same. In general, the union’s regional and global reach did not grow significantly between 2014 and 2019. At a time when Europe’s weight on the global scales was diminishing and its neighborhood was troubled by multiple crises, the EU and its member states were not able or willing to invest significantly more in their common foreign policy.

The new EU leadership team that came into office in November 2019 understands that the present state of EU external policy leaves room for improvement. The leaders started with high ambitions: senior politicians such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell declared that Europe would finally learn the “language of power,” turn itself into a geopolitical actor, and take the lead on critical policy issues such as climate, cyber, and Africa. But as the new top officials were about to begin their work, Europe was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which is likely to be a game changer for EU foreign policy.

Francesco Siccardi is a senior program manager at Carnegie Europe.

The authors are grateful to Emma Murphy, Nicola Paccamiccio, and Malte Peters for their research support.


1 Data for this article come from the European Commission, the European External Action Service, and the EU Council General Secretariat.