‘Who do you call if you want to speak to Europe?’ as a phrase is popularly attributed to former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.  Kissinger’s comment was foremost literal.  Prior to 2009 the figurehead for Europe’s external interactions, the President of the Council of the European Union, would change every six months.  The lack of a permanent head of a chain of command, a representative to communicate a consistent European position on major international issues, was a constant source of exasperation and confusion for external parties.

Image courtesy Lawrence Jackson, © 2010. Some rights reserved.

Image courtesy Lawrence Jackson, © 2010. Some rights reserved.

However, in addition, Kissinger was also making a more general comment on the structure of the European Union as an international actor.  With its expansion and transformation from a simple free trade zone to a legitimate international political union, Kissinger’s comments have been seen as tapping into a broader dysfunction inherent in the EU’s fundamental structure. The bi-yearly presidential change would also come with a corresponding shift in priorities set by the European leadership.  A Europe headed by the French would focus on West Africa, reflective of traditional French interest in the region, whilst six months later would see a volte-face and shift towards a EU focus on human rights at the instigation of the Danish Prime Minister.  In a bid to resolve the lack of permanent direction and rationalise competing competencies, in 2007 the EU signed into law the Lisbon Treaty.  This saw the establishment of a permanent High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, coupled with a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

At its heart, the Lisbon treaty has attempted to resolve the vexed question of national diplomacy versus the collective representation and pooling of sovereignty inherent to any international organisation.  However, this problematic is particularly amplified for the EU, which sees the active enmeshing and binding of multiple spheres of governance on a scale unparalleled in contemporary international politics.  The establishment of the CFSP can therefore be read as an attempt at rationalising these competing elements through the formation of a new, European level.  Some five years after the Lisbon Treaty came into law it is a good point to examine how well the EU has resolved these issues – ultimately, how well the EU, an international institution arguably never designed as an external actor in itself, is performing internationally.

Since the establishment of this dedicated, coherent foreign policy under the CFSP, the EU has had some notable successes.  Chief among them is the recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, which has gone some way to a Euro-American – Iran rapprochement after a decade of limited diplomatic contact.  Whilst this saw the elevation of the EU as an actor in itself, this intrusion of the EU into international negotiations at the expense of national diplomacy has been uneven.  Initial negotiations involving the EU over the emerging crisis in the Ukraine still saw a focus on the ‘big three’ European member states as representatives of the EU rather than the EU itself.

At the same time, there has been a large growth in the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European diplomatic cadre that has established a number of delegations in different countries globally.  Interestingly, there is increasing cooperation and cross-training information exchanges between member states’ national diplomatic missions and the EEAS.  With the post-2008 strains on national spending, particularly amongst smaller member states, there is also an increasing move towards co-locations of national diplomatic missions within established EEAS delegations.  With this increased overlapping of European and national diplomacy, the operation of national diplomats from within these enmeshed National-European structures provides a further level for expansion of European foreign policy.  Ladrech analyses these domestic-European interactions as part of a wider process of ‘Europeanisation’, which sees the reorientation of the direction and shape of domestic politics in conformation with European structures.[1]

In this conceptual framework, Europe as an external actor is ultimately formed out of bi-directional interactions between individual member states and European institutions and structures.  Foreign policy is thus formed from a mixture of downloading’, ‘uploading’ and ‘crossloading’ from individual states.  ‘Downloading’ from member states sees the transformation and harmonisation of individual states in keeping with the requirements of EU membership.  By contrast, ‘uploading’ is the contribution of member states’ foreign policy towards a common European policy, and ‘crossloading’ sees the promotion of seemingly common, normative ‘European’ values.  The constitution and performance of the EU as an external actor is therefore inherently linked to these interactions below with its member states – a key, unique part of its nature as an international actor.

The trade-offs between these two different levels produce a unique foreign policy for the EU.  Whilst the EU operates a common security doctrine, territorial defence still remains the ultimate prerogative of individual member states and NATO.  However, the European Union is rapidly growing in its international presence as it ‘grows’ into its new post-Lisbon mode of organisation.  The expansion of its presence in the UN where it currently holds ‘Enhanced Observer’ status, unlike any other international organisation, is a case in point.  Moreover, the gradual and piecemeal encroachment of the European level onto the national through the expansion of the EEAS and European diplomacy provides another level for the incremental expansion of the EU as an external actor.  The EU’s relative timidity thus far is therefore more a function of the relative infancy of its structures and the establishment of a more explicit role as an external actor in itself, rather than a simple consequence of its status as a multilateral organisation.

Going forward, the ultimate test of the EU as an international actor will be its willingness to actually exercise a common foreign and security policy beyond vague normative notions and reactive discussion.  The EU may have more clearly delineated its institutional structures, its hierarchies and points of external contact, resolving at least to some extent Kissinger’s first central question.  However, the degree to which Europe has overcome the second premise of Kissinger’s comment – ultimately, to what extent Europe as a whole can be ‘called upon’ in international relations and crises – still remains unclear.


[1] Ladrech, Robert. 1994.  Europeanization of Domestic Politics and Institutions: The Case of France.  Journal of Common Market Studies, 32:1.