Does European "Uncommon" Foreign Policy Have a Future?

EULEX Special Police Department
Does European "Uncommon" Foreign Policy Have a Future? - Elisabetta Brighi


More than ten years have passed since the end of the Cold War, and yet the structure and nature of the newly born international system remains far from defined. Or rather, its only stable feature appears to be that of instability. Since 1989, relations among states have been shaped by a high degree of fluidity, uncer­tainty and precariousness that few observers had foreseen.

In this new and less predictable international context, Europe has hitherto forfeited opportunities to redefine its role in the world arena. No longer the bone of contention between the two worlds of democracy and communism, Europe seemed well prepared to launch a decisive phase of integration in foreign and security policies at the beginning of the 1990's. However, it took only a few years to prove European federalists, who believed that the hour of the United States of Europe had finally come, wrong once again. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)2 is a policy without a clear perspective, in spite of recent integrationist proposals.

The purpose of this paper is to investigate the current stalemate in Euro­pean foreign policy and identify relevant dimensions of European external security policy. Only if internal and external dynamics affecting the European continent are taken into consideration can reasonable expectations about the future of the CFSP be formulated. Referencing integration and international relations theory sheds light on the crucial causes-of the current European stalemate and separates significant from marginal issues.

Europe and the World: Some Preliminary Considerations

The characterization of the new international system as increasingly unsta­ble will not surprise those familiar with the neorealist approach to international politics. As early as 1979, Kenneth Waltz argued that bipolar international sys­tems are more stable than multipolar systems3. Since 1989, the eruption of local, limited, yet disruptive crises at the periphery of the Western world, the push to regionalize international politics, the precariousness and the ever-changing nature of relations among states, and the reemergence of domestic politics as a powerful source of influence on foreign policy4 all point in the same direction.

The new international system appears to have lost the mechanical and automatic adjustment mechanism that bipolarism provided. Without its compel­ling imperatives, uncertainties arise every time a crisis erupts concerning responsi­bility for the costs of intervention. The United States no longer has a systemic compulsion to intervene in every European crisis in order to preserve its leader­ship and not lose ground against the Soviet Union. The Western world must face the consequences of selective US engagement and enhanced systemic unpredictability.

If we follow the reasoning of most alliance theorists5, this situation should result in a powerful incentive for Europe to finally integrate its member states' foreign policies. In fact, as the threat from the Soviet Union disappears, a de­creasing level of cohesion in the Western camp was predicted to follow. This would certainly be the most powerful argument for the affirmation of Europe as an autonomous international power. Unfortunately, this argument is not borne out by reality. European foreign policy integration is deprived of momentum. Other powerful incentives are at work, running counter to integrationist tendencies. These forces, which come from both the internal European context and its external envi­ronment, will be considered in the next pages.

The Internal European Context

In the proliferation of acronyms invented to define the American and Eu­ropean effort to create a common European foreign policy, the concept of the European Security and Defense Identity (ESDI) was particularly relevant because it stated the purpose of European military cooperation and indirectly offered the best possible definition of what Europe has not yet acquired: a common Euro­pean security and defense identity.

Why have all efforts in the last decade failed? To answer this question, it is useful to compare the two main theoretical approaches that have been used thus far to explain the dynamics of European integration and apply them to the study of cooperation in foreign and security affairs.

First, neofunctionalism has repeatedly stressed the concept of "spillover," the mechanism that transmits incentives for integration from one area to another and induces greater numbers of transnational actors to support the cause of inte­gration. In this process, supranational institutions have a key role since they both lead the efforts of transnational actors who want to integrate and visualize the future integrated community. Thus, if integration has success in one area, the process of leaming will initiate further integration, producing a virtuous circle6.

Neofunctionalism seems ill-suited to explain European cooperation in the domain of foreign policy, since none oft he assumptions of this theoretical ap­proach seem to hold. No spillover effect has occurred in the last decade. Even now that the EMU has been launched, it is unlikely that a positive spillover will take place and increase the chances for cooperation in military issues, especially as long as the Euro experiences significant weakness. Moreover, if the launch of the Euro took approximately five decades, how long ·will ESDI take?

Current CFSP provisions do not allow much intervention by European institutions apart from the European Council and the Council of Ministers oft he EC, the institutions that have traditionally represented the different national inter­ests of European states. The European Commission, the European Parliament and a fortiori the European Court of Justice play a marginal role; these very institutions could provide a vision of European integration and are capable of creating a European identity. However, they remain at the periphery of institu­tional procedures, deprived of any real power.

Furthermore, the very nature of the policy seems to be a negative rather than a positive element for the successful application of the neofunctionalist para­digm. The areas of foreign and security policies are typically characterized by the absence of transnational actors and elites. Even the identification of common needs, another central starting point for a neofunctional integration, seems remote.

With those criticisms in mind, it is easy to see the points of strength in the second theoretical approach, that of intergovernmentalism7. The central as­sumption of this theory is that states, not transnational actors, are the subjects of the process of integration. States engage in bargaining processes in which they aim to maximize national interests defined through domestic politics, not through security or power. Any step forward or backward in the process of integration depends on the degree of convergence or divergence that national interests have at that particular stage of the process, and thus relies on the will of states to con­tinue or halt cooperation.

This approach interprets European integration as a long series of cel­ebrated intergovernmental bargains that have resulted in lowest common denomi­nator agreements among states and allowed only as much integration as states have been willing to concede. Integration, then, has nothing to do with a vision of Europe, but is rather a pragmatic approach toward facing the issue of closer co­operation among neighboring states. Whereas neofunctionalism emphasizes the potential harmony of interests among states, intergovernrnentalism stresses the conflict of interests8.

The recent unfolding of events favors the intergovemmentalism interpreta­tion. Integration seems to proceed only when states allow it, and the institutions that are involved in the decision making process of CFSP are only those that keep an eye on states' interests.

For example, Great Britain has been traditionally the least enthusiastic state as far as the integration of European foreign policy is concerned. Until a few months ago, it strongly opposed any advance in this process, blocking the exten­sion of qualified majority voting (QMV) from implementation measures to crucial political matters, denying any strengthening of the role of the European Commis­sion or Parliament in the second pillar, that of the CFSP, and opposing the gradual merger of the WEU (Western European Union, the military arm of the European Union) into the EU. On a scale of different levels of propensity to integrate their foreign policy, Great Britain scored the lowest, whereas states such as Germany and Italy scored highest9.

Upon what did this particular stance depend? Historically, Britain in­vested little in the creation of EPC and CFSP, preferring NATO to a common European foreign and security policy. Drawing on its long tradition of independent foreign policy, Britain often acted as if it did not need European legitimization or "cover" for its foreign policy.

The situation in other states was quite different. Germany and Italy, though ever faithful to the Atlantic alliance, have never hidden their federalist aspirations and always supported any program, plan or declaration that enhanced European cooperation in foreign policy. Their commitment to this cause has been undis­puted, and this can be understood by taking their international concerns into con­sideration. Fifty years on the front line of the conflict between the free world and communism, these two countries are currently also the most exposed to the new threats from the periphery, bordering as they do on the "arc of instability" that stretches from the Balkans to North Africa10.

It is thus no surprise that the treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam re­flected a lack ofc onvergence and opted for provisions able to satisfy all positions, ending up with a compromise oflittle practical or operational meaning. Every treaty has been put to a crucial test; Maastricht had former Yugoslavia and Am­sterdam had Kosovo. In both cases Europe, as a distinctive and autonomous actor offo reign policy, failed.

Since the end of last year, however, the positions of European states have changed. Great Britain has demonstrated its willingness to advance in defense cooperation, with the objective of developing Europe's autonomous military ca­pabilities11. This reversal was codified in the Saint Malo meeting of December

1998, in the Cologne meeting of June 1999 and finally in the Helsinki meeting of December 1999, where all countries decided to move forward in the progressive merger of the WEU into the EU, agreed on the creation of several European military bodies12 and sanctioned the appointment of the first High Representative of CFSP, Javier Solana.

With the reversal of the British position, new intergovernmental bargains were struck, and the results that followed were those already mentioned. Once again, European supranational institutions played no relevant role; rather, the states themselves decided to move forward in the process of integration. Only when national interests sufficiently converged did the states decide to proceed with fur­ther integration.

Why then has the British position changed? As emphasized by intergovernmentalist theory, domestic politics played a consistent role in redefining British "national interests." In this regard, the election of Tony Blair in 1997 and the victory of the Labour Party contributed to altering the British position on many European issues. The international position of Great Britain may also have changed; NATO now appears less viable and cannot be trusted to solve "European" crises.

More importantly, are these new developments of a decisive nature and have they improved the framework of an effective European foreign policy? It could be argued that these developments are nothing but the European response to the emergency of Kosovo and that they will not last. Even if they do, a very important puzzle remains to be solved. Starting from the end of the process and building up military capabilities does not preclude the logical beginning of the process of integration These new military provisions do not clarify what the ultimate source of political authority for such a defense policy is, nor what the role of the CFSP should be. Military capabilities are valuable only so long as political capabilities are sufficiently strong. Whereas there seems to be some progress in the first area, the second area is approaching a new stalemate. Simply increasing military per­sonnel or assets is unlikely per se to help build a European political identity.

Thus, the CFSP amounts to little until it incorporates the possibility of getting a state do what otherwise it would not have done. The key reform re­quired is the extension of QMV to crucial strategic and political affair, since this would mean the end of the possibility of states invoking a national veto every time they perceive a threat to national sovereignty. Unless this happens, the European Union will lose political credibility while gaining military capability.

Are national interests sufficiently convergent on reform? Not yet, as the newest bargains all demonstrate. Great Britain and France not only decided to move forward in endowing the EU with military capabilities but also emphasized their willingness to adhere to intergovernmental methods when making political decisions. Will there ever be sufficient convergence? The intergovernmentalist approach assumes not, because governments are not interested in combining their foreign and defense policies and creating a linkage with other areas. This pro­nounced and prolonged divergence among the national interests of European mem­ber states appears to be a very powerful determinant of the present failure of CFSP. The theoretical approach that best explains past European cooperation paints a dim picture of its future.

The External European Environment

Internal divergences alone, however, are not the only determinants of the failure of CFSP; another important aspect concerns external relations and in par­ticular, troubled transatlantic relations.

As mentioned earlier, the collapse of bipolarism reopened the question of the internal balance of the transatlantic alliance. Now that the leadership of the US is no longer questioned, and in the absence of a threat to the international security of the Western world, an increase in the divergence of allied interests is likely to take place. Are Europe and the US drifting apart? In the past ten years both actors have succeeded brilliantly in making these divergences seem of little impor­tance, and the new concept of ESDI was the cornerstone of the strategy of re­newed cooperation.

The US attitude towards the creation of a European Defense and Security Identity has passed through several phases in this decade. At first the concept of "partnership in leadership" was invented to reassure Germany and the rest of Europe about their continued saliency in the transatlantic alliance, and the label of ESDI was coined to give support and legitimization to European attempts in the area of defense. Then, from the mid-1990's until 1998, the US switched to a position of benign neglect, postponing the decision about responsibility and lead­ership in European security. In 1999, however, as the acceleration of the debate about European military capabilities gained momentum, the US finally publicized precise conditions for the present and future process. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's "3D's"13 are quite straightforward: no duplication of US military as­sets, no decoupling of the US from Europe, and no discrimination against non-EU NATO members.

Ambivalence is likely to become the key feature of the US attitude to­wards the CFSP. On one hand, the United States wants a stronger Europe since a weak continent is of no strategic value, but on the other hand, the military and political leadership of the US should by no means be questioned. This policy of squaring the circle is not sustainable, especially as European assertiveness in the area of military affairs persists.

The Helsinki provisions of December 1999 may have sown the seeds of future confrontation. The creation of a Political and Security Committee, a Mili­tary Staff a Military Committee and a Rapid Deployment Force seen is Close to the concept of "duplication," not just of assets, but of bodies of command.

If these tendencies are confirmed, the transatlantic link might be severely impaired. However, the gap between European and American military capabilities is still wide, and it would take European states decades of inconceivably high defense spending to fill it, if they ever decide to do so. For the time being, European assertiveness is a remote threat to US military primacy, but the political meaning of such developments should not be underestimated.

The US is faced with a strategic dilemma in Europe and simply "deciding not to decide" is no answer. Should the US preserve its influence in Europe or should it engage in a gradual political retrenchment, sparing the American economy huge costs and avoiding dangerous overextension and embarrassing "selective engagements?" Either way, the future of the transatlantic link depends on its deci­sion.

The hegemonic stability theory explains the "capability-expectations gap14," the apparent inconsistency between the current difficulty in building the ESDI as opposed to the high expectations for it at the beginning of the decade. Coopera­tion proved less easy than expected because the context in which it took place changed significantly. Bipolarism turned out not to be an obstacle to European cooperation; on the contrary, American hegemony over Europe during the Cold War facilitated and fostered prolonged intra-European cooperation15. As long as the US performed the basic functions of assuring a constant defense against the Soviet threat and permanently installing troops on European soil, European states cooperated with each other. Once the US no longer performed these functions, benign cooperation began to be replaced by much less dependable "normal" in­ter-state relations among European states, a context characterized as much by conflict as by cooperation.

The constant and unquestioned US presence in Europe solved the peren­nial problem of balance of power within the continent for decades. Now that the presence of the US in Europe becomes more and more uncertain, old rivalries inevitably reappear. Thus, cooperation under the new international context may actually be less likely than under bipolarism. This should not be taken to ex­tremes16; the resort to war among European states is still unlikely to occur. How­ever, European states will be less likely to accept measures that do not yield immediate relative gains in terms of power and influence, and they will be less willing to act on the basis of pure reciprocity.

This argument may be refuted by the mitigating factor of interdependence. After all, European states are closely linked by economic, cultural and social inter­dependence, and this has always diminished the chances of extreme conflict. However, the thesis that economic interdependence and cooperation can spill over to high politics areas is a functionalist tenet whose validity has been ques­tioned even by neo-functionalists17. Secondly, economic interdependence might not be a sufficiently "mitigating" factor when defense and military issues are in­serted into the picture; interdependence cannot nullify a security competition.

Therefore, the predictions that follow from these considerations are not very promising about the chances of having a real ESDI created in the near future, if ever. This is the result of the neorealist approach. In fact, this approach has proved to be very useful in explaining the pattern of European cooperation in the Cold War era, and its general validity seems to hold even in the post Cold War world as well.


The future of European foreign and defense policy looks very uncertain. Even with new developments, it is still to be seen whether these measures are a temporary acceleration due to the emergency in Kosovo or whether they are a true catalyst for change18.

European efforts to build its own ESDI have been hampered by two sets of obstacles, one coming from its internal dimension, the other coming from its external environment. First, a pronounced and prolonged divergence of major European member states to integrate foreign and security policies has been a source of disunity and stalemate. This factor, coupled with the reality of intergovernmentalism, has brought about the paralysis that has characterized CFSP since 1991, the year of its inauguration.

As for the second set of causes, the international position of the continent does not appear to favor the creation of a true ESDI in the near future. Even though Europe has a strong incentive to increase its profile in the transatlantic alliance now that bipolarism has collapsed, these incentives are powerfully coun­tered by the change in the context of intra-European state relations.

The chances for a complete ESDI and CFSP in the near future are very low. This does not imply that the process of cooperation will stop or recede, but rather that it will remain fragmented and ineffective for years, or until the sudden rise of an external threat forces cooperation among European states. In the post Cold War international system, we can reasonably expect that threats to security will be less concentrated than before. Thus, even this beneficial scenario for a common European policy paradoxically renders it even less likely.