EU Foreign Policy? Let’s Talk European Interest!
The strategic imperative for the member states of European Union is clear: do more on foreign and security policy or risk losing peace and stability in Europe. Behave more strategically or risk becoming irrelevant in the new era of big great-power competition.
But the political reality is equally clear: The EU is not a diplomatic superpower; it is militarily irrelevant; and it is deeply divided on many of the key issues that will determine the strategic landscape for the next decades: defense (including nuclear deterrence), Russia, China, migration, EU enlargement, the Balkans, and Turkey.
So, the big question is: what will make the EU move? Or, to be more precise: what will force the member states to do things that they have chosen to neglect so far? One way of answering is to go back to the most natural concept in foreign policy: interests. No peace narrative, no entreaty to shared values, no sense of responsibility creates as strong a motivation to act as the need to pursue a vital political interest. When we think and talk about a nation’s foreign policy, doing so in terms of the national interest is the most common thing in the world. The “national interest” is a key category in policy analysis and, with the exception of a few ultra-clever theorists, few people question that understanding how a nation defines its interest is pertinent to understanding why it acts the way it does.
"If there is a European interest, how can it be made more visible and how can it be made a driver or an operational guideline for EU action?"
If the goal is to improve EU foreign policy, it might therefore be useful to ask: what is the European interest? Can the notion of the national interest be adapted to the EU level even though the EU is not, and will not be, a nation (nor a state, for that matter, at least not anytime soon)? Can a European interest be defined in a way that would make it meaningful? Such a definition would have to move beyond the big macro concepts (peace, stability, democracy, human rights, dialogue, multilateralism) that are mostly meaningless because they are eternal. If there is a European interest, how can it be made more visible and how can it be made a driver or an operational guideline for EU action? And, perhaps most importantly: can a European interest exist above national interests, or even against them? Are EU member states and their populations the only owners of interests in the European context?
These questions might sound esoteric at first, but they are key to breaking the gridlock of EU foreign policy. They are an attempt to break through the ritualistic foreign policy debate in the EU, in which member states get blamed, strategic necessity is invoked without consequences, and calls for greater responsibility are futile.
The European “will to power” that the Financial Times asked for recently will only emerge if European nations feel that a European interest needs to be pursued and defended. A genuine European interest is not just a shared but a common interest. One that springs from being in the fight together, not just from finding the least common denominator. Discussing and defining the European interest could emphasize the things that hold Europe together as opposed to discussing mainly what drives Europeans apart. It would create a foundation for joint action, not as shabby compromise but as the natural outflow of a genuine sense of togetherness. It could point the debate in a direction away from “the narcissism of small differences” to strategic commonalities. Most crucially, making the debate interest-based could finally make it more political and less abstract and theoretical
The challenges, of course, are massive. The national interest itself is hard to define among different groups within a nation. If that is the case, how hard must it be to do so one level up? Also, foreign policy does not lend itself to integration the same way that the single market, trade, consumer protection, and agricultural policy do. This is mostly because foreign policy is harder to monetize, and it is therefore harder to buy compromise in this field.
But Europe is a comparatively small geographic space. The small differences it revels in become less and less important the larger the global political context becomes. Europe’s jagged coastlines, its exposed borders, its very unstable neighborhood, and it deeply globalized economy—in other words its hugely difficult geopolitics—should function as drivers toward a more common strategic sense.
Even if a real EU foreign policy—with joint political will, coordinated diplomacy, a convincing conceptual software, and an equally convincing military hardware—is a long way off, it is clear the narrative needs to change. Just pointing at “new challenges,” “greater responsibility,” or “shared values” will not do the trick. We have tried that. The result, as Pierre Vimont—one of Europe’s (and France’s) finest diplomats—says, is that there is “no real European foreign policy.” He is right. We need to get real. If we finally want to get political about foreign policy, we need to talk about European interests and the ways and means to pursue them. Let us start the debate.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.