European Unions weak foreign policy – Exemplified by Ukraine

Why is the European foreign policy still not working as it should work? Henry Kissenger, a former US Secretary of State and political scientist once famously asked: “Who do you call when you want to speak to Europe?”

It took the EU some decades to respond. In December 2009, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that the person to call on foreign policy issues in the European Union is Catherine Ashton, who had just been chosen as the European Union’s foreign affairs chief. Therefore, the “so-called Kissinger issue is now solved”, he claimed. So, by taking that into account, everything is fine now with the foreign policy of the European Union? From my point of view it is not. But before discussing that I have to mention some theoretical basics about the foreign policy of the European Union.

How it should work?

Based on the Lisbon Treaty the coordinator and representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) within the EU is the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (currently Catherine Ashton) who speaks on behalf of the EU in foreign policy and defence matters. It is her task to articulate all the positions expressed by the 28 member states of the EU on fields of policy into one common alignment. For appropriate policies on any particular issue, the CFSP requires unanimity among all the EU member states.

CFSP – a short explanation

The Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU was created in the Maastricht Treaty and has mainly the following aims:

  • promote both the EU’s own interests and those of the international community as a whole
  • respect of human rights
  • promote democracy
  • protect the rule of law
  • emphasis on “human security,” rather than traditional geopolitics

Therefore, the European Union limits itself to strictly humanitarian missions, namely dispatching election observers and providing institutional support as well as various types of Association Agreements such as the one at the center of the Ukrainian crisis.

How it does work – exemplified by Ukraine

Turning now to the European foreign policy in the Ukraine crisis.
At the beginning, European talk of democratization and economic development created incentives for change in Ukraine. And as long as support remained in the realm of ideas and institutions, European foreign policy representatives did a good job, because it was quite easy for them to show unanimity. Ashton, for example was the first senior foreign official to visit Kiev after Yanukovych fled.

But the situation in the Ukraine crisis rapidly changed, when it moved into the zone of military actions. Now the European Union’s hands are tied, because the European Union does hardly have any possibilities for military actions. Before he invaded Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin intelligently played up divisions among EU member states, for example Germany and Britain (these mostly arise from their varying dependence on Russian energy and trade). Beside some visa bans for some Russians, the EU leaders are discussing economic sanctions against Russia. But Germans know that any punishment for Russia will exact a higher price on their own economy, since their exports depend on good relations with Russia, as Kathleen R. McNamara explained in an Foreign Affairs article.

Why is it ineffective? 

To sum up, the main problem of the EU foreign policy is that the national governments have been extremely reluctant to transfer decision making authority for foreign and security policy to supranational European institutions. They have insisted on a heavily intergovernmental process for decision-making on foreign and security policy. As a result, the European Union is sorely limited in its ability to respond in real time to crises.

And for the foreseeable future, the main goal of EU foreign policy will be the navigation of the political agendas and identities of its member states. In the European Union’s view of the world, things such as armed intervention are simply not on the agenda, although individual member states such as France continue to undertake military interventions on their own.