The international environment has been changing through global power shifts, with democratic values on the defensive and the liberal economic model enduring setbacks. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of the European Union’s global standing. European member states often find themselves diverging rather than converging towards “common” policies.

Though the European Union (EU) is a global actor in areas like trade and climate, the bloc has struggled to develop a coherent common foreign and security policy. EU external action is rather often plagued by institutional inefficiencies and a lack of shared strategy. While recognizing these shortcomings and propagating for the EU to become a more responsive and coherent actor and to acquire a more prominent international role, member states vary in their commitment to ensure a united EU foreign and security policy.

The EU’s present institutional inefficiencies and its lack of strategic coherence have indeed been a frequent target of criticism by experts. National governments continue to “muddle through”. The consensus rather has been to concentrate on deriving shared strategic goals (a focus on content) even if this means reducing outputs to the lowest common denominator in lieu of institutional changes.

A recent collaborative report, published by GLOBSEC, looked at 15 EU countries and their governments’ positions on EU foreign policy. Some common themes emerged (what to resolve), giving hope that consensus can be found among member states. But, there is a continued struggle to find common positions on how to tackle the emerging challenges.

EU member states perceive the role of the bloc in global affairs, firstly, as an important multiplier of their own external activities. This is particularly true for countries like Slovakia (middle and small member states) that is indirectly involved in the EU framework in geographical and issue-areas where otherwise they would not have the ability to act. While the Indo-Pacific region is not on Slovakia’s immediate radar of national priorities, for example, EU engagement in the region enables Bratislava to take part as well.

A second consensus point among member states is reflected in the emphasis placed on the benefits of strategic coherence. Currently focusing on the preparation of the Security Compass. This binding document aims to identify a common and coherent vision of the EU’s strategic objectives and a shared understanding of the threats the bloc is facing—a complex and challenging initiative.

Most member states, thirdly, share a hesitancy towards the establishment of a novel legal and institutional framework – this is especially true with respect to the expansion of qualified majority voting (QMV). Germany, perhaps, is more open to change and France willing to discuss the matter, but smaller member states are concerned that their national interests could be undermined (even if they come with safeguards). On this issue the Slovak government is wary but somewhat receptive to the discussion of QMV’s justified extension to new areas.

Fourth, some issues are deemed by most member states as important to tackle. These include regional stability (also integration and enlargement, important for Slovakia), relations with global actors (US, Russia, China), security and migration.

Yet, member states are meticulously guarding their national interests and holding firm to threat perception formulations based on the peculiarities of their histories, cultures, economies, societies and surroundings.

Deep dividing lines, for example, are emerging concerning how the bloc should approach other global actors. Russia, as one illustration, underlines this gulf. Member states like Poland and Estonia are ardent proponents of more stringent sanctions, placing Moscow at the top of their national threats list. Czechia and Bulgaria, representing another grouping, have seen their stances on Russia harden in response to illicit activities recently uncovered on their territories, with countries like Slovakia also responding in solidarity. Yet the pursuit of investment projects – such as Nord Stream 2 – with Russia underscore the willingness of other member states, like Germany, to pursue mutually beneficial relations with Moscow on certain issue areas.

China’s influence on different member states, meanwhile, has been augmented through the 17+1 format and the country’s penetration into some market niches (e.g. new technologies, telecommunications, education). The European Commission has deemed China a “systemic rival” and some national governments like Poland and Lithuania have begun to reverse their cooperation ties with Beijing. Simultaneously, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment was signed with China in December 2020, raising questions about the rigidity of the EU’s policy stance and some member states have been strong partners of China bilaterally (e.g. Hungary, Croatia).

Additional areas of member state policy divergence and incoherence pertain to the EU’s approach towards the Mediterranean region, integration and accession in the neighbourhood, and the migration challenge.

France, notably, has been seeking to advance initiatives towards developing of EU strategic autonomy but has faced resistance from numerous member states, including Slovakia, concerned about the ramifications of these proposals on their defence and security, currently guaranteed by NATO and the US.

Strengthening the EU foreign and security policy will necessitate the devising of a comprehensive strategic outlook incorporating shared threat perceptions and priorities. This entails development of a strategy that is ambitious, providing clear guidelines for future EU external action.

Implementation will also be paramount. The gradual expansion of already available instruments presents one viable path forward. These tools can enable “those who want more to do more” without setting the precedent of a two-speed Europe more broadly. However, widespread use of these tools, it should be acknowledged, risks drawing additional attention to disagreement between member states.

While the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen titled her Commission as the Geopolitical Commission, not all member states are ready to pursue novel mechanisms in forging EU’s foreign policy, giving it more agility and flexibility. And, while some benefits from the common foreign policy are appreciated, the community decision-making continues to be preferred by most governments, while carefully guarding own national priorities.

 

*This article is based on a collaborative report “From Contestation to Buy-In: The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy as Seen from European Capitals. National Approaches to The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy” as part of GLOBSEC’s GEOPE – “Geopolitical Europe: are the EU member-states ready for it?” project supported byJean Monnet Actions of the EU’s Erasmus+ program. 

 

The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein. All of the views expressed are of the contributing authors thus do not necessarily represent the official position of GLOBSEC.

This article was originally published on SME‘s website on 10 June 2021.