The Development of the European Union's Global Role

Even though the main effect of the integration process, as outlined above, has been a change in Europe itself, it has nevertheless had an impact externally as well. In part, this has been a consequence of market integration—the creation of a customs union required a common external tariff, which in turn meant that trade policy would need to become an exclusive competence of the Union. Furthermore, the early stages of the process of integration in Europe coincided with the process of decolonization, with many new states in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean (ACP) achieving independence from the former colonial powers in Western Europe. In many cases this resulted in the negotiation of preferential trade deals with the EU, requiring a common European response. These took the form of a series of agreements that set up formal development cooperation between the EU and the so-called ACP states (Dimier 2006).

The EU thus inherited a global role by managing the trade policy and development cooperation of its member states. However, this—initially limited—focus soon gave way to a recognition that external economic relations also require a degree of diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world. In the 1970s, the wars in the Middle East and in Vietnam, the Arab oil embargo, and the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system all impacted Western Europe heavily, while at the same time demonstrating that the European states only stood a chance of influencing global events if they acted collectively. This resulted in an effort at foreign policy coordination among the member states, aimed at developing and projecting a common position on issues such as the Middle East peace process or the Helsinki accords with the Soviet Union.

Member states were from the outset keen to see such coordination of foreign policy as being conducted outside the common institutional framework, and even sought to develop an alternative institutional infrastructure for such coordination. Over time, however, this distinction became ever more difficult to sustain, and gradually the Union itself acquired the competences and institutions to coordinate foreign policy, and later on the power to develop foreign, security, and defence policies in cooperation with the member states. By the mid-2010s, the EU possesses an 'External Action Service' consisting of a diplomatic HQ in Brussels and some 200 'delegations' across the world, a 'High Representative for Foreign Policy' acting as a quasi-foreign minister, a military staff to coordinate a growing number of (civil-) military missions around the world, a European Defence Agency to coordinate defence procurement, and a number of other agencies to support the creation and conduct of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

While the institutional development of the EU's foreign policy machinery over a relatively short period is rather remarkable, there has also been much criticism of the limited effectiveness of CFSP, and the lack of coherence between the EU's diplomatic role, its external economic relations, and the external implications of other key policies such as development policy, environmental policy, or internal security (Carbone 2008). The problems the EU has, in particular, with the coherence of its external relations—the coexistence of a common European external action and of individual national foreign policies—complicates the identification of an EU perspective on global governance that is being attempted here (Bretherton and Vogler 2005; Christiansen 2001b).

There is neither the space nor the need in this chapter to conduct an exhaustive analysis of EU foreign policy-making—indeed there is a significant body of literature devoted to that subject. What is important to note is that the EU has indeed developed an aspiration to play an active role in international politics and to influence the evolution of global governance regimes (Keukeleire and Delreux 2014). In the same vein, it is increasingly expected of the EU to have a position on international issues, and to act on these—an expectation that comes both from citizens in the member states and from outside Europe.

One long-lasting criticism of the EU's foreign policy has been that it has purposefully given rise to (too) high expectations, without having either the resources or the political will among national governments to actually be able to deliver on these expectations. The 'expectations-capabilities gap' resulting from this mismatch is damaging to the credibility of the Union (Hill 1993). While institutional developments during the past two decades have addressed somewhat the lack of diplomatic resources at the European level, the issue of (lacking) political will remains a perennial problem for a more effective CFSP. Individual member states are loath to give up their claim to conduct independent foreign policies, challenging and occasionally contradicting common positions agreed in the context of CFSP—a common position that has in any case been agreed unanimously—and thus not through QMV.

These limitations notwithstanding, the fact is that the EU now has a track record of some forty years of coordinating national foreign policies and developing its own distinct approach to international relations. This means that it is legitimate to look for, and to talk about, a European Union perspective on global governance. Section 10.3.2 will discuss some of the key points in this perspective, derived both from this explicit foreign policy of the EU as identified in its discourses and external actions, as well as from the preferences for global governance that are implicit in its political culture, as discussed above.

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