Europe’s Place in the World
in the 21st Century

, by Peter D. Sutherland

Europe's Place in the World in the 21st Century

In light of probable increasing threats to Europe during the 21st century, we need a more coherent and effective EU as an actor on the international stage. None of the 25 nation states of the EU (even the most powerful) can be truly effective or sometimes even relevant acting alone. Our publics seem to grasp this point better than our politicians. Eurobarometer polls across Europe highlight strong support for “more Europe” in foreign and security policy. There is an expectation among our international partners also that Europe should assume greater global responsibilities. On some global issue such as Kyoto and the international criminal court, the EU has already provided leadership, showing what can be done when we are united and speaking with one voice. There remains, as Christopher Hill wrote some years ago, an “expectation-capabilities gap” in EU foreing policy.

The world is likely to become more dangerous for Europe. The security, economic and demographic trends are not encouraging. Europe will continue to grow modestly – in GDP and perhaps membership – but such technological advantage as it may have in areas as information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology will be eroded. Europeans will by 2025 comprise a mere 6% of the world population, while Africa and the Middle East will see a high population growth. The prognosis is for tensions and strong migratory pressures in the regions around Europe, at a time when Europe is becoming increasingly dependent on the rest of the world, especially for energy. It is forecast that by 2030 Europe will be externally dependent for 90% of its oil and 65% of its gas. China and India will drive global energy demand, and seek new sources in Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In this and other ways, European security interests may be directly or indirectly challenged by tensions arising not only in the near neighbourhood but also further afield.

Europe has the potential to rise to these challenges and to share in the new opportunities created by emerging markets and globalisation more generally but can only do so by continuing to adapt and develop institutionally.

Interdependence of internal and external policies

From the very beginning the Treaty of Rome recognized that there could be no internal market without a customs union that, in turn, could not survive without a common trade policy. Today it is even more clear that internal and external policies are interdependent, especially in a world of open markets and free capital movements. Economic and monetary union has led to the emergence of the euro as the world’s second most important international reserve and trade currency, giving increased influence to the EU globally.

Most of the internal policies of the EU have substantive international implications. For example, the completion of the internal market has led to the adoption of EU standards in key technologies around the world (China’s motor industry, food safety, mobile communications and so on). EU competition policy not merely provides an important internal regulatory instrument, but addresses issues such as international cartels or abuses by dominant undertakings that may affect global markets. There are also strong demands from third countries to cooperate with EU programmes like research policy, education and transport. The fast development of EU policy in the area of justice and home affairs is reflected in the external dimensions of these issues.

In many of these areas policy is a shared responsibility between the EU and the Member States and this presents particular challenges in achieving coherence.

The inaccurately named constitutional treaty tried to deal with these problems. In part this was by proposing a new position of EU foreign minister that would have given the EU – so it was hoped – more coherence, more consistency and more visibility. These were and remain good proposals. I deeply regret the lack of progress on them during the current “pause for reflection”. It seems to me that we have too much pause, and too little reflection. However cautiously, we must continue a process of giving responsibility to the Commission to develop policies in the common interest rather than relying purely on dialogue between capitals. We should recognise that intergovernmentalism has generally not worked in the past and is not the answer for the future. The euphemism used for this intergovernmentalism is often the word “cooperation”, but cooperation between sovereign states is not enough. This is essentially the failed model that gave rise to the need for the EU in the first place.

The importance of the rule of law

One of the main reasons for the EU’s success has been adherence to the rule of law. This fact of supranational law at its base distinguishes the EU from all other intergovernmental associations of states. Member States have accepted that they will sometimes be outvoted in the Council in some vital economic and social matters because the EU is a community of law. All Member States are equal before the law. Governments may protest and procrastinate, but in the end the system works because all members accept the primacy of Community law. This law-based approach also characterises the EU’s approach to foreign policy. It is sometimes excessively obsessed with agreements, rules and regulations. But I think there is great merit in the EU championing a rules-based approach to the international system.

From its inception, the EU has worked for the gradual opening of global markets and a rules-based international trading system. Had there been no EU there would be no WTO and Europe today would consist of a number of fragmented and protectionist areas totally incapable of contributing to globalisation.

Supranational decision-taking

The reason for our success in international trade is that we have adopted a supranational approach to decision-taking. We have a corps of highly professional and coherent officials in Brussels that produce timely and relevant policies taking into account a genuine EU perspective on issues. This allows the Commissioner to speak with the full authority of 25 member states in trade negotiations. Our partners may on occasion not like our policies but they do respect us as a major player.

There are important lessons we can learn from how we operate in the trade field that are equally applicable to foreign policy.

There are important lessons we can learn from how we operate in the trade field that are equally applicable to foreign policy. The Union could be as effective in other policy areas if it wanted to, simply by providing for a single representation. The aim must be for the future EU foreign minister to speak under a similar mandate in the CFSP field where there is an agreed policy or common strategy. Member States would thus continue to enjoy bilateral relations with third countries but they would not discuss EU policy towards them in areas of agreed EU policy. Solana is already accepted as a spokesman in some key areas of foreign policy, for example in the recent nuclear talks over Iran, but the situation is complicated by the fact that the ‘big three’ EU Member States tend to operate separately in fields such as this. Other Member States are suspicious of this model, which resembles a directoire rather than a real common policy. I see nothing wrong with smaller task forces being established, under a Council mandate, to deal with particular issues. However, these groups should be under strict reporting requirements to the whole Council and be subject to its ultimate authority when acting on behalf of the EU.

The foreign policy machinery works badly at present. European foreign policy has always been overly bureaucratic. There are numerous squabbles over issues of competence and too many actors involved – the Member States, the Council, the High Representative, the Special Representatives, the Commission, the Parliament, each with their bureaucracies, interests and ambitions. Some improvements have been made as a result of Solana’s appointment, yet he operates with woefully inadequate resources. The situation is further confused by the six-monthly rotating Presidency, often setting its own (national) priorities. A plethora of different legal bases for external action in different fields further complicates the picture, as does the fact that the EU itself has no clear legal personality, which would have been remedied by the Constitution.

In light of the challenges facing Europe we cannot continue to allow all decisions to be taken on the basis of the lowest common denominator. I recognise that you cannot have Qualified Majority Vote for military action, but for the vast majority of foreign policy issues there should be no insuperable problem in introducing majority voting. This could be done in stages. First, with an ‘emergency brake’ to provide for consultations at the European Council in the event of a major disagreement; second, moving to a super qualified majority; and then, some day, in a third stage, to the normal QMV procedures. I understand the Quai d’Orsay carried out a survey last year seeking decisions since 2000 where France would have been outvoted in foreign policy. With the notable exception of Iraq (and here military action was involved) there were no cases. I rather suspect there would be a similar result if the same assessment was made in the United Kingdom or Germany.

QMV in Foreign Policy?

Whilst I believe we must move steadily towards QMV in foreign policy, I also recognise that this itself is not a panacea for an improved foreign policy and will take time to achieve. This is why I think there has to be action on a number of other issues. These include the designation of an EU foreign minister (combining the roles of High Representative and Vice President of the Commission), the creation of a European diplomatic service, legal personality for the EU, and the end of the rotating Presidency role in foreign affairs. Some of these improvements require changes in existing Treaty provisions. That may take time. If necessary, I think we can make the first two of these improvements without a new Treaty. These proposals were all in the constitutional treaty and I do not wish to underestimate that fact.

We need to go much further and consider what could be done even before any new treaty is ratified. One priority must be to enhance the complementarity of various policies and to reconcile different objectives (for example in trade, agriculture, development, environment or migration). There is already a high level of consensus on the broad framework of the EU’s external objectives. What is missing is a more systematic approach to setting strategic objectives and political priorities at both geographical and thematic level so that policy objectives guide the choice of policy instruments (rather than the reverse). There should also be improved up-stream co-ordination to promote consensus on issues of EU relevance that are subject to discussions in multilateral organisations, fora of global governance, and regional organisations.

Even when the EU has clear objectives and an agreed course of action, the impact and effectiveness of our action is often hampered by mixed messages as well as slow and complex implementing procedures.

The EU therefore needs to ensure that once a policy decision has been taken by the EU, all actors integrate this into their diplomatic and public messages as well as in their own policy development. This implies reinforced coordination in Brussels as well as better use of the EU’s diplomatic capacities to convey clear, single messages to partners.

Improve cooperation between the EU and Member States

There is considerable scope for Member States to co-operate more effectively in third countries. Jointly the EU and the Member States dispose by far the largest diplomatic machinery in the world. The EU has ten times more missions and three times more personnel at its disposal than the US. But is Europe as effective as the US in foreign policy? Are we using the human and material resources which we collectively invest in foreign policy in the most effective way? If foreign ministries do not ask the question, finance ministries will certainly ask why there needs to be 25 separate EU Member State missions, plus a Commission delegation, in countries x, y and z, when the EU is supposed to operate a common foreign policy. We must also ask ourselves what kind of people should we be recruiting to serve Europe’s interests. European diplomacy needs more experts on climate change, inward investment, migration and terrorism.

Defence ministers also need to become more involved in EU affairs.

There is also much that could be done to improve co-operation between Council and Commission. There should be increased sharing of intelligence and a greater exchange of diplomats and officials between the Member States and the EU institutions. A major increase in the tiny CFSP budget is also necessary if the EU is to make any progress towards fulfilling its global ambitions. At the same time, there needs to be clarity as to responsibility for different budget lines. Defence ministers also need to become more involved in EU affairs. It is surely time that there was a European defence white paper rather than 25 separate papers. Finally, I am convinced that it will be important to enlist the support of the European public, through the involvement of the European Parliament and national parliaments as well as the media and NGOs, for the goals of the EU in foreign policy.


In conclusion, the EU has developed steadily as an international actor during the past decade. Much has been achieved but the record could have been better if we had acted quicker through strengthened institutions. The proposals I have outlined would be seen in some capitals as being at the modest end of the spectrum, but if implemented they could lead to a significant improvement in the EU’s external performance.

Of course, foreign policy remains a sensitive area and Member States are keen to retain their historic prerogatives and traditional links. Foreign ministries are also reluctant to negotiate themselves into a reduced role while there remain unanswered questions about legitimacy and significant differences of foreign policy culture, experiences and expectations. But if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century we have to recognise that the adoption of the Community method would bring significant advantages. In the short-term, individual actors and institutions may see advantages in the freedom of manoeuvre that comes from exercising their responsibilities in an autonomous way, but in the medium and long term, the global influence of the EU will depend upon the ability of the Member States to speak with one voice – and to take the necessary decisions in a timely manner.

Excerpts from the Charlemagne Lecture - 22nd November 2006

This article was originally published in the July 2007 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World.

Image: Global Europe taken from Google Images

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