Stepping up the EU’s multilateral efforts
Analyse Europese Zaken

Stepping up the EU’s multilateral efforts

26 Sep 2017 - 13:59
Photo: European Parliament / Flickr
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Although going largely unnoticed, the EU’s approach towards multilateralism – a bedrock of its foreign policy – was significantly overhauled under the 2016 EU Global Strategy. Recently, it was also identified as a priority area for the Strategy’s second year of implementation. At the same time, there is a window of opportunity – consisting of Brexit, a European UN Secretary General and US retrenchment – for the EU to step up its multilateral efforts. However, EU member states need to shape up and forge consensus on the reform of the multilateral system and their external representation if the current system and the disproportionally high European influence are to be maintained.1

The European Union’s commitment to multilateralism has for long been considered part of its DNA. In particular, the notion of ‘effective multilateralism’, introduced in the European context by the European Security Strategy (ESS) in 2003, has resonated well with scholars and practitioners. In the words of the ESS, ‘effective multilateralism’ refers to the “development of a stronger international society, well-functioning international institutions and a rule-based international order”.

Consequently, the EU’s new ‘grand strategy’, the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) presented by High Representative Federica Mogherini in June 2016, prominently features multilateralism under the heading of “Global Governance for the 21st Century”. However, not least due to more immediate challenges such as Brexit, the exacerbating security context and the unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants, the evolvement of the EU’s policy towards multilateralism under the EUGS has received only marginal attention by policy-makers and academics.

Why multilateralism (and the EU) matter
This lack of analysis is unfortunate for several reasons. First and foremost, a multilateral approach is key in addressing the Union’s most pressing foreign policy challenges ranging from security to migration in a sustainable way. It is also indispensable for the growing number of long-term challenges such as climate change and international development. This is recognised but not yet sufficiently put in practice by European officials who in the latest EU priorities at the United Nations (UN) of July 2017 state that “multilateralism is the most powerful tool that we have in our hands”.

Second, the international environment has undergone dramatic transformations since 2003 when the ESS optimistically proclaimed that “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free”. Today, while the multilateral system is more open and diverse, it also suffers from declining legitimacy, intensified contestation and increasing fragmentation. Given that the EU has not only benefitted from, but has also been instrumental in building up the multilateral system including moving it beyond national interests and state sovereignty, these challenges are of particular concern to the EU, itself a multilateral system par excellence.

Multilateralism is not only important for the EU, but the EU is also important for multilateralism

Finally, the EU and its member states are the biggest combined donor to the UN. According to the EU Delegation to the UN, this amounts to 30 percent to the regular budget, 33 percent to the peacekeeping budget, and to roughly 50 percent of all voluntary contributions to UN programmes and funds. In this sense, multilateralism is not only important for the EU, but the EU is also important for multilateralism.

A window of opportunity for stepping up the EU’s engagement
Several opportunities currently come together to open wide the window for stepping up the EU’s efforts in the multilateral system. While Brexit will undoubtedly weaken the EU’s diplomatic weight, the United Kingdom (UK) has been one of the member states most reluctant to enhance the EU’s multilateral representation. The exit of the UK might thus grant the EU more internal political space.

Additionally, the new European UN Secretary-General, António Guterres of Portugal, entered office with a clear reform agenda that is very close to that of the EU. According to the EU’s priorities at the UN, Guterres’ priorities (conflict prevention, sustainable development and management reform) “coincide” with those of the EUGS. Consequently, the EU “has a strategic interest to keep up the momentum for change”.

Mogherini in UNSC
Federica Mogherini at the UN Security Council. Source: European External Action Service / Flickr

Finally, the election of Donald Trump allows the EU to fill the gap that the United States leave behind in the multilateral system. The Dutch initiative to set up an international abortion fund in response to Trump’s move to prevent organisations supporting abortions from receiving US government funding is a good example. On free trade, the EU should seize the opportunity to re-invest political capital in the stalemate at the World Trade Organisation and the advancement of regional free trade areas after Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Recognising this window of opportunity, the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) of July 2017 rightly identified “supporting global governance, in particular the United Nations” as a priority for the implementation of the EUGS in its second year of existence. This renewed political attention begs the question of what to expect from EU’s approach towards multilateralism in the upcoming year of prioritised implementation. Yet, little has been written on the substantial changes to the EU’s approach under the EUGS. In the following, I will thus assess the EUGS’s key provisions on multilateralism and identify the main challenges to be addressed by the upcoming implementation and conceptual follow-up.

From effective multilateralism to effective global governance
To start with, the EUGS does not mention ‘effective multilateralism’ anymore. Instead, it introduces the notion of ‘effective global governance’ which reflects the EUGS’s new narrative of ‘principled pragmatism’. The approach is principled in the sense that it committed to consolidating, deepening and widening traditional international organisations, particularly the UN. Yet, it is more pragmatic in recognising the need for more flexibility and formats of cooperation which “may vary from case to case”. It also recognises a wider range of partners and has an unprecedented emphasis on civil society (mentioned 22 times), the private sector (mentioned ten times) and public-private partnerships (mentioned three times).

Combined, this means that the assumption that the EU unconditionally supports multilateral approaches has become questionable. While a traditional UN-first approach remains the EU’s preferred approach, it is no longer perceived sufficient for advancing the EU’s interests and addressing global problems. Instead, a case-by-case approach that includes both formal and informal institutions as well as state and non-state actors is deemed necessary to advance the EU’s interests globally.  

The danger of this approach is that instead of increasing the predictability of global governance and taming powerful actors, the new more flexible use of multilateral institutions might exacerbate the existing challenges of multipolarity, legitimacy, and fragmentation. Furthermore, the abandonment of ‘effective multilateralism’ as one of the most well-established and recognised concepts of EU foreign policy might have negative consequences from a strategic point of view by confusing allies or undermining the EU’s image as an unconditional supporter of multilateralism. While ‘effective global governance’ might be the more accurate term for the new approach, it is less catchy and unlikely to achieve the same recognition and attention as ‘effective multilateralism’ did.

From preserving to transforming multilateralism
Another new element is the EUGS’s strong commitment to “transform rather than simply preserve the existing system”. This call is based on the conviction that “resisting change risks triggering the erosion of such institutions and the emergence of alternative groupings to the detriment of all EU Member States”. Moreover, for the EUGS change entails that “the EU will aspire to play a leading role in supporting the emergence of multilateral governance notably in areas like cyber security, digital economy, space or health”.

The new more flexible use of multilateral institutions might exacerbate the existing challenges of multipolarity

With the transformation of the multilateral order long overdue, I argue that the EU is currently not a credible agent of change. While developments such the Lisbon Treaty, the creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the upgrade of the EU’s status at the UN General Assembly significantly strengthened the EU’s potential to act externally, EU member states face a fundamental dilemma: they recognise that they benefit from their current over-representation in the multilateral system, but know that if the system fails to change it risks being eroded. Most member states, however, are unwilling or unable to overcome this dilemma and there is no EU-wide consensus on substantial approaches to reform of major international organisations, including the UN Security Council and the International Financial Institutions. Instead, the EUGS merely highlights the EU’s commitment to the principles of “accountability, representativeness, responsibility, effectiveness and transparency” and qualifies this commitment with the elusive statement that “the practical meaning of such principles will be fleshed out case-by-case”.

António Guterres
The European UN Secretary-General, António Guterres of Portugal, entered office with a clear reform agenda that is very close to that of the EU. Source: European Parliament / Flickr

I also doubt that the depiction of the emergence of “alternative groupings”, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as necessarily “detrimental” is strategically wise if the EU is to constructively engage with emerging powers. Not only does it undermine emerging powers’ legitimate aspirations to leave their imprint on the multilateral system, it also undermines the EU’s aspiration to position itself as a positive force for change and to contribute meaningfully to global problem-solving.

The way ahead
To be fair, the EU’s new approach towards multilateralism under the EUGS does a lot right: It is conceptually consistent, responds well to the changing global environment and the practical and academic criticism of ‘effective multilateralism’, and provides a strong narrative of the EU as “an agenda-shaper, a connector, coordinator and facilitator within a networked web of players”. Thereby, it significantly overhauls the approach under the ESS which was drafted in times that retrospectively look like a different era of international relations. Yet, there are a number of shortcomings, challenges and ambiguities that – if not properly addressed politically and conceptually – might undermine the EU’s possibility to make the most of the window of opportunity to step up its multilateral efforts.

Against this background, my recommendations for the upcoming year of prioritised implementation of the EU’s approach towards multilateralism under the EUGS are the following:

1: Reconsider the abandonment of ‘effective multilateralism’ as a doctrine guiding EU foreign policy based on the altered approach of the EUGS.

2: Further conceptualise and explore innovative, inclusive, and integrated ways of engaging with civil society and the private sector in global governance, particularly in thus far under-regulated areas.

3: Work towards a consensus among EU member states on reform approaches of international organisations, particularly of the UNSC and the International Financial Institutions.

4: Overcome the dilemma of giving up power versus risking to erode multilateral institutions by recognising that the UN system and the disproportionally high influence of individual EU member states in it can only be maintained if they rally behind a more joined-up external representation and accommodate the aspirations of emerging powers and developing countries.

5: Develop a common, pro-active approach towards new multilateral institutions to integrate rather than isolate them and encourage the adoption of established norms and procedures.

  • 1. This article is informed by seven interviews that the author conducted in March and April 2017 with practitioners and academics involved in the drafting of the EU Global Strategy.


Sebastian Forsch
Carlo Schmid Fellow at the World Bank in Washington, D.C