Global Europe: EU’s external relations in a multipolar world
Analyse Diplomatie & Buitenlandse Zaken

Global Europe: EU’s external relations in a multipolar world

09 Jul 2019 - 13:32
Photo: Flickr / European Union Naval Force Somalia Operation Atalanta
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The EU leadership reshuffle raises questions about the EU’s external relations. Should we interpret the appointment of a German defence minister as president of the Commission as a belated response to new (and old) security threats in a multipolar, post-Cold War world, or as an attempt to give the EU a new reason d’être beyond its role as trading power - in the absence of a common identity and sense of community at home?

In a recent article, the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, reflected on the (then) upcoming reshuffle of the European Union’s leadership. It was the choice for a new president of the European Central Bank, he argued, that far exceeded the importance of all other decisions European governments would have to take, which ranged from the appointment of new presidents to the European Commission and European Council, of a new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to the handling of Brexit and trans-Atlantic damage control during the reign of Donald Trump.1 Wolf’s comment points at the primacy of EU’s internal or ‘domestic’ affairs over its external relations. And, indeed, much of the future internal and external stability of the EU will depend on the political skills of the new ECB president, and on the question whether she will manage to save the euro from enduring divisions within the eurozone.

European leaders at the G20 Summit in Osaka
European leaders at the G20 Summit in Osaka. © Flickr / Number 10

This in turn depends on the level of social cohesion that can be reached in a post-Brexit EU. Here the role of the next president of the European Commission is equally important. Will she be able to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable divides between the old and new member states of the EU, between the Northern and Southern members of the eurozone, between the haves and have-nots across Europe? Will she be able – and willing – to correct more than thirty years of (partly) EU-induced liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation and re-establish the balance between market integration and welfare provisions? The centre-right outlook of the package-deal does not necessarily indicate a strong commitment to improving social cohesion. On the contrary, the appointment of a German defence minister as president of the Commission may very well suggest the continuation of a practice that started with the 2016 ‘State of the Union’ address of Jean-Claude Juncker and the publication of the European Union Global Strategy that same year: efforts to realise a functional spill-over from the economic and monetary union to so-called high politics, notably a defence union. Should we interpret this as a belated response to new (and old) security threats in a multipolar, post-Cold War world, or as an attempt to give the EU a new reason d’être and revamp its external actorness – i.e. beyond its role as trading power - in the absence of a common identity and sense of community at home?

Trade policy
When discussing the most pressing themes with regards to EU’s external relations as I did in my most recent book, trade policy is the most concrete external action in terms of material capabilities and, hence, the strongest expression of EU actorness in its most effective form.2 However, it is also a policy terrain to which the notion of Normative Power Europe applies, not as a proclamation of universal norms but as an extension of specific European interests and their projection onto the world market. This is expressed in the notion of ‘commercial internationalism’, i.e. the outward manifestation of the EU’s emphasis on competitiveness and structural reforms as part of the so-called neoliberal turn since the 1980s. However, these external projections by the EU are not uncontested.

The EU’s trade with the rest of the world is one of the most important internal and external battlegrounds in which state and non-state actors collide

Indeed, looked at more closely, the EU’s trade with the rest of the world is one of the most important internal and external battlegrounds in which state and non-state actors collide at various levels of analysis. This is clearly evident in the now-defunct TTIP, which brought supporters and opponents increasingly to blows until President Trump unilaterally broke off negotiations. Also, increasing external pressure on the Common Agricultural Policy—formally a separate area of policy that originally had primarily internal aims—has led to a considerable modification of this form of trade protectionism. In the latter case, the officially stated goal of reducing economic disparities in the international system has been part of the legitimation of trade liberalisation—and the politics of commercial internationalism more generally.

European development policy
European development policy shows that this policy area has become more ideologically specific since the 1990s too. In line with changing ideas within the EU on government intervention, the emphasis has come to rest on economic liberalism, also with regard to development issues. Governments in developing countries should focus on export promotion on the one hand, and on the realisation of a political investment climate that can best be described as good governance on the other. Second, the EU’s development policy has increasingly been targeted at the poorest countries in the international system, which has partly been at the expense of a policy focused on good relations with former colonial territories.

Third, grand ideas about development and underdevelopment have made way for a stronger emphasis on poverty relief and the fulfilment of basic needs. This appears to reflect a certain degree of pessimism about the likelihood of development, which is both industrial and sustainable, succeeding in the poorest countries. And finally, development policy has been ‘polluted’ by two considerations that have little to do with a global and altruistic perspective on inequality. Since the end of the Cold War, priority has been given to developments in Europe’s immediate neighbours, while security considerations with regard to the EU itself have received a more prominent place on the political agenda. Migration flows and the related crises are key motivations for this last tendency.

Delegation of the EU Commission in Ethiopia
Delegation of the EU Commission in Ethiopia. © Flickr / EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation

Another conclusion that can be drawn is that the Europeanisation of development policy still has a long way to go. The differences between member states remain too significant. The larger member states in particular continue to see development policy as an extension of their national foreign policy; other countries have a national development culture that is largely based on non-material interests. And still other countries, in particular the new member states that joined in the 2004-2007 period, are yet to start developing a full-fledged policy of development aid. Though there are traces of convergence to be found, especially since the turn of the millennium, there are two reasons to believe that such a convergence will ultimately be found wanting. Firstly, this convergence is a convergence of interests based on a common (or at least perceived to be common) external threat and not one based on mutual cooperation conjoined by beliefs—i.e. not based on functional spill-over and upward Europeanisation. Secondly, not all member states are a part of this convergence. If the big bang enlargement of the EU has shown anything, it is that the various external ‘challenges’ are perceived and appreciated in different ways by old and new member states.

EU’s enlargement policy
The end of the Cold War and the concomitant collapse of socialism in Central and Eastern Europe has had a wide range of consequences. One important result was the shift in attention within the EU’s external relations away from regions and countries that were geographically distant from the Union—whose development prospects had not significantly improved despite decades of aid—and towards democratising and liberalising the ‘other Europe’. This was further encouraged by the fact that the typical Cold War fear of a domino effect, i.e. the spread of left-wing revolutionary and anti-Western tendencies in the Third World, was reduced (if not completely dissipated) as a result of the demise of communism. This took away a significant reason for development cooperation with these countries. That the increase in national implosions and the phenomenon of new wars that were also a result of the end of the Cold War created completely new security dilemmas and fears was not fully appreciated everywhere during these first euphoric years after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Transformation means real social-political and economic convergence accompanied by a change in mindset among elites and citizens

Based on the idea that charity begins at home, the EU developed a comprehensive enlargement strategy in the 1990s of which the final accession of CEE countries in 2004-2007 formed the apotheosis. The Copenhagen criteria were key to this strategy. Although the generally formulated and strictly formal and nominal criteria are seen as the cornerstones of the EU as a transformative power and are even the most effective part of what the EU can do as a global player, reality is more complicated. Here, the difference between transition and transformation plays a central role. Transformation also means real social-political and economic convergence accompanied by a change in mindset among elites and citizens. Recent developments in Central and Eastern Europe have shown that this distinction is relevant. This is one of the four meanings given to the notion of ‘beyond conditionality’ in my book. The successive governments in CEE after 2004-2007—that is, after having met EU conditions for accession—have indeed fulfilled their formal obligations within EU institutions but have also experienced a certain setback in the political transformation process. Corruption is widespread, and some governments are increasingly turning to authoritarian, xenophobic and Eurosceptic practices.

EU Commissioner of Enlargement Policy Johannes Hahn & High Representative Federica Mogherini
EU Commissioner of European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn & High Representative of the Union Federica Mogherini. © Flickr / European External Action Service

In the EU’s relationship with the current candidate countries and with the countries participating in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP)—two other meanings of ‘beyond conditionality’—it can be concluded that considerations of its own security have become increasingly important for the EU. In the case of the candidate countries, there is a risk that the EU will repeat its previous mistake regarding the big bang enlargement, but this time with potentially more serious consequences due to the continuing instability of the candidates. In the case of the ENP, the EU has increasingly become the victim of contradictions in its external relations: forced democratisation imposed from the outside can lead to greater instability in the surrounding countries, and increased instability among neighbours can increase the feeling of insecurity within the EU to such an extent that it ultimately endangers the entire integration process. Again, migration is an important factor here, but it is certainly not the only source of insecurity and scepticism towards the EU looking at the internal and external factors and actors determining the security of the EU and its member states, and their policy re- (or in-) action, in a liberal and multipolar world.

Security of the EU
The period of ‘hegemonic stability’ has run its course, not least because of the changes in US foreign policy. The US has partly turned away from Europe or, rather, is focused on other partnerships. The end of the Cold War was a development of unprecedented significance. With a certain delay, EU member states and EU institutions started to reflect on the consequences of this change. The result of this reflection is the CSDP. This policy domain provides the framework within which the EU can eventually develop its own defence and security policy. But reality is unruly. The EU has shot itself in the foot by subjecting itself to the dictates of the US too ideologically, and for too long. This is evident in the deliberate choice to go along with the neoliberal turn initiated by the US. And it is even apparent in Europe’s most recent attempts to give the EU a military identity. The increase in defence spending, implemented partly at the instigation of the Americans, is something that, given the neoliberal principle of austerity, irrevocably leads to a shift in budgetary priorities. A greater emphasis on defence at the expense of other policy areas must, of course, be legitimised.

It is ultimately a debate about the role of Europe as a global player

As of now, it is too early to speak of a militarisation of the European integration process, but in conclusion we can say that there is undeniably a movement towards enhanced cooperation in the field of defence. In addition to the debates that are taking place around this theme—between Atlanticists and Europeanists, and between intergovernmentalists and supranationalists—perhaps the most relevant debate is about what type of military power the EU should develop: a proactive intervention force that can also be used to discipline or deter opponents (which according to the security dilemma would quickly amount to provocation) or a structure that takes the accompanying acronym seriously, namely a policy-oriented and institutional architecture based on communality and defence (or self-defence).

It is ultimately a debate about the role of Europe as a global player. A European security strategy that unequivocally nestles between offensive realism and power politics on the one hand, and naive idealism on the other, allows for a broader understanding of the concept of security, including the socioeconomic security of its own citizens. Such a shift almost irrevocably implies a gradual socioeconomic and political-military emancipation from Europe’s former ally on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The question, however, is whether such a strategy is realistic and feasible within the current multi-level balance of power, both within and outside the EU.

De autoritaire verleidingOtto Holman
‘Global Europe. The external relations of the European Union’ 

Amsterdam University Press - ISBN9789462985377
Pagina's 244 - €34,95

  • 1Martin Wolf, ‘Weidmann casts a shadow over the ECB’, Financial Times, 12 June 2019, p. 9.
  • 2Otto Holman, Europa als Wereldspeler. De Externe Betrekkingen van de Europese Unie (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019), translated as Global Europe. The External Relations of the European Union.


Otto Holman
Universitair hoofddocent Internationale Betrekkingen en Europese Politiek aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam