Balancing Foreign Policy and national sovereignty: a European issue

Source: European Council


By Isabella Del Carlo, Sara Kolthi

During the last years we have witnessed a lot of crises regarding the European Union and the different ways in which it has dealt with them, proving a progressive improvement and a renewed push towards establishing a common stance. From closing its borders during the migratory crisis and the pandemic, to a common action towards Russia in the last 2 years, the 27 have shown to rely on the EU, with a progressive alignment on several different levels and aspects of Foreign Policy.


Russia and the European Union then and now: 

The evolution in the approach that Member States and the EU have undertaken towards Russia’s military mission in Ukraine shows an increasing involvement of the EU in Foreign Policy.

Starting from the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, the EU has responded with a first package of restrictive economic measures, later widened with asset freezes and travel bans. The European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council addressed the issues regarding eastern borders by strengthening sanctions against Crimea and Sevastopol. Another relevant event has been the Member States’ support on the negotiation of the Minsk Agreements: accords signed by Ukraine and Russia with the support of France, Germany, and the OSCE, with the goal of establishing a Russian commitment to return the occupied territories to Ukraine and to respect the ceasefire. During the following years more sanctions were implemented in order to punish Russia for violating the Minsk Agreements, touching also the members of the Duma and separatists. 

A bit of a leap has been the Italian reaction towards Russia: in 2015 it had a counter-current position, as the Parliament wrote against the sanctions, referring to its economic losses and to a “passive acceptance” of the bans, due to Italy’s long-lasting role as a bridge between the NATO and the Russian federation.

A salient event in the EU’s action towards Russia is the country’s recognition of the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine as independent entities in 2021.This led to significant economic restrictions on capital and financial markets in Russia, and the first restrictions on energy

As an almost immediate reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine back in February 2022, the EU froze Putin and Lavrov’s assets, banned transactions with the Russian Central Bank, and prohibited Russian overflights in EU airspace. In the meantime the Union finances Ukrainian armed forces. 

One year after the beginning of the war, Poland opposed the sanctions on Russia regarding the imports of synthetic rubber, as the country heavily relies on them.

This opposition was addressed by limiting the bans in that sector. This year, the 13th package of bans was presented after the death of Alexsej Navalnyj, addressing also Russian penal colonies following the EU sanctions regime on human rights. The actions undertaken by the EU have been supported by the Member States, with growing support as Russia kept on threatening Ukraine and interfering with its sovereignty. The EU’s coordinated action shows a change in perspective from the acts undertaken a decade ago, to the support of the restrictions and shifts taken on by the Common Foreign Policy over the years. 


Energy: from dependence to detachment

The energy sector has been significantly concerned by the effects of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The policies followed by the EU have aimed at diversifying energy supply with the common goal of detaching from Russia’s fuels and supporting the growth of renewable energy.

As earlier stated, 2021 marks the year of the first energy sanctions against Russian exports. In the field of energy the fifth package of restrictions banned investments in the energy sector, the import of Russian coal and fossil fuels. Looking at Russian fossil fuel exports in early 2022, they amounted to a total of 16 billion euros, compared to 1 billion euros per month in 2023. 

Russia has turned its attention towards Asia, while the EU has chosen various countries for energy supply: Norway and the United States taking the lead in crude oil. While the EU has not imposed strict sanctions on natural gas, Russia has limited its exports against the refusal of European Member States to pay in rubles after the freezing of assets and the banks exclusion. Even without sanctioning natural gas, the EU has been able to reduce its expenditure and use of it, thanks to the growth in renewables and nuclear generation and to a strong Common Foreign Policy.

Even after the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has not developed a Common External energy Policy,keeping it a shared competence between the center and the Member States, despite the lack of a rigid common path, the years 2022-2024 show a positive response in energy management, both from countries and the EU. 

Source: Bruegel (Darvas et al, 2022)

European neighborhood policy 

Another example that illustrates the shift in foreign policy decision-making towards the EU is the European neighborhood policy (ENP).

Through the ENP, the EU managed to create a connection with the neighboring countries, which were either not ready to enter the EU , such as the Eastern European countries or, as it was for North African countries, that did not have the geographical prerequisites to be a part of it.

The system was built on conditionality, offering financial and monetary support, as well as access to the internal EU market, only to countries that carried out a series of reforms. In fact, the ENP is one of the many instruments that follows under the eu umbrella that aims at establishing good neighborhood relationships, but also at fostering prosperity, stability, rule of law and broadly speaking all the values at the foundation of the union.

Although the policy was initially launched to deal with the east, the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and the entrance of countries such as Sweden and Poland into the EU prompted further development of the European Neighborhood Policy.

In 2015 the European institutions were pushed by a new Russian invasion, this time towards Ukraine, to start a process of reflectionThe Member States themselves provided the impetus for the institutions to develop the European Neighborhood Policy, pushing towards more united action in Foreign Policy, although some relevant restrictions remained, especially because the instruments used were mainly soft law.

As far as the south of the Mediterranean is concerned, action plans and bilateral agreements signed by EU with neighbors across a wide range of policy areas introduced a new methodology of Foreign Policy that allows to create an interest and policy scheme without appealing to enlargement. 

Although the EU has shown to be a leading actor in Foreign Policy in the Mediterranean, the Member States are always involved through all the processes regarding agreements with third countries, but there haven’t been relevant dis-alignments with the union’s actions.

Source: Euromed 2023 Survey

The migration crisis, a crisis for European common action

A delicate aspect of Foreign Policy where Member States have always had problems both collaborating and acting as one body through the European Union institutions is migration. 

The 2015 refugee crisis was a step back in the progress for integration and for achieving a common action in foreign policy. In fact the Member States, overwhelmed by such a crisis, took divergent actions from what was the EU’s stance on border control and the criteria of acceptance of refugees. Countries such as Hungary, Austria and Slovakia refused to accept refugees, stating that accepting them would negatively impact both their societies and their resources; they even went as far as implementing stricter border controls. But these were not the only countries to take such actions; in fact most Member States opted for the ‘temporary reintroductions of border controls’ .

These choices of action went against the EU initiative to create ‘the European agenda on migration’, where the focus was not only on securing the union’s borders but also the establishment of a strong common asylum system and a distribution system for the countries receiving the larger amounts of refugees.

Although in recent years the EU has done a lot of work to create a common asylum system which aims at helping the overwhelmed countries and assuring the safety of the ones seeking asylum, the behaviors of single Member States have remained fragmented.

Furthermore, several Eastern European countries have been accused of illegal pushbacks and most Member States have voiced their disapproval for EU’s stance on migration, requesting stricter measures, but since the Union has decided to not move towards such direction countries have taken unilateral distinct approaches.

France by reinstating several times in this last decade border controls or the several bilateral agreements that do not involve the European Union, on a possible push back of migrants such as the the Italy-Libya memorandum in 2017, Austria- Iraq cooperation against illegal migration and the present negotiation for the Italy-Albania agreement that aims to create two centers that would be destined for refugees receiving asylum in Italy.

These elements show how the field of migration is highly sensitive  for Member States, as they are reluctant to accept common foreign policies and to reduce their own sovereignty.

To conclude, it’s relevant to point out that, despite the EU’s incapability of aligning Member States’ opinions on many Foreign Policy matters, it has been steady in responding to crises with common stances and solutions, as we saw with Russia. 

“The EU has shown us with the Russia-Ukraine conflict that there could be some creativity! – Prof. Maria Giulia Amadio 

We have faith that alongside its process of internal integration the EU will keep growing also in foreign affairs after proving once again to the 27 that a decrease in sovereignty doesn’t necessarily imply negative impacts, but rather a more harmonized and effective set of policies.

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