Europe’s inability to implement foreign policy

The European Union’s ability to smoothly implement a cohesive, coherent foreign policy stance or doctrine is eroding. Consider the following string of foreign policy failures:

  • The EU introduced their workaround of U.S. sanctions on Iran at the end of January in an effort to maintain the nuclear deal negotiated in 2015. But, because of the limited scope of the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), it is not expected to satisfy Iran’s economic demands in return for their continued cooperation with the nuclear deal.
  • After the United States announced they would suspend the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, the EU rushed to condemn the move, but Cyprus blocked the statement, citing concerns the statement was “too tough” on Russia.
  • When the EU tried to release a joint statement about the recent summit with the Arab League, Hungary and Poland stopped it over domestic immigration concerns.
  • As major European states announced their support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the EU itself failed to issue a joint statement of support for Guaidó after Italy halted the joint statement.

In an increasingly multipolar world, the EU as an institution is more relevant than ever and can negotiate for itself a greater global role. Yet with every recent international crisis, the EU distracts itself with bureaucratic infighting, projecting a weak and fractured image abroad. Why has this happened? And what can the EU do to remedy their foreign policy dilemma?

Realist concerns in a liberal institution

The EU was originally created in 1993 as a means to maintain European relevance amid U.S. dominance, an aggressive Russia, and the rise of developing nations such as China, Brazil, and India. No single European state is powerful enough to exert a massive global impact anymore, so they must work together to remain influential.

However, the EU’s efforts to make an impression recently have been stymied by the intergovernmental organization’s framework and processes. In order to adopt a policy, it must receive unanimous consent from the Council of Ministers, a body composed of all 28 member states’ foreign ministers. As a result, the dissenting vote of the small island nation of Cyprus alone overrode the will of the 27 other states and prevented Europe from condemning the suspension of the INF treaty.

Foreign policy provides an opportunity to project an image of what a state believes the world should look like. As a collection of 28 states, each with their own national concerns, the EU has an inherent challenge in coordinating a unanimous vision. This is challenge is only complicated with Eurosceptic populism rising in Europe. Eurosceptic governments have little in common with each other and do not have enough votes to push any common policy agenda. However, because unanimity is needed to pass a statement from the EU, they incapacitate the institution.

The obvious solution is to reform the foreign policy framework so it requires a simple majority of the states to pass a resolution. With a simple-majority requirement, the EU would be able to conduct a deliberate, clear foreign policy doctrine. But states are hesitant to give up an important facet of their sovereignty to the EU by accepting majority voting. States like Poland and Hungary will not risk their national security concerns being silenced simply because the majority of EU states don’t face the same issues. Instead of helping Europe project a strong image abroad and increasing their international influence, the EU’s foreign policy highlights how realist concerns about national-self determination and state security continue to reign supreme in a liberal institution.


Author: Peter Brukx

Peter Brukx is a staff writer at The Compass. He is an International Affairs major at the Elliott School, interested in European politics and security policy. He is also a member of the GW College Democrats Blog Committee and is the GW Club Swim Team Assistant Coach.