Grecaud Paul – stock.adobe.com
by Irene Carradori
Since February 24, the European Union has been dealing with a completely changed geopolitical reality. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced the Union to implement a different foreign policy. From harsh sanctions aimed at weakening the Russian economy to financial support to the attacked country, the EU has shown surprising determination in its reaction. The EU’s response to the war has been heralded by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, as “the birth of a geopolitical Europe”, meaning the birth of a stronger and more decisive Europe capable of responding resolutely to the conflict’s new dynamics.
Without a doubt, the war has provided a way to display the Union’s foreign policy coordination capabilities but is the Union’s foreign policy truly prepared for new global challenge, or is there still room for improvement, not just in the short term, but also in the long one?
A change in the decision-making process within the Council and a possible reform of its institutional framework might be two of the various responses for the improvement of the European Union’s foreign policy.
Decision-making process: from unanimity to qualified majority
Since before the Russian invasion, changes in the decision-making process have been discussed. The delay in the majority vote implementation has been attributed to Eurosceptic countries’ concerns, which have stated reservations on multiple occasions about adopting a new mechanism that eliminates the right of veto. There are also significant EU personalities among those who are opposed to the adoption of qualified majority. Indeed, the European Council president Charles Michel has stated repeatedly that while unity “slows down and sometimes even prevents decision-making,“ it also drives the EU to work together to accomplish that unity, which is the EU’s aim.
Nevertheless, is it still reasonable to rule out the adoption of qualified majority voting considering the completely changed geopolitical circumstances? Unanimity, as is easy to foresee, can be a significant impediment to the implementation of a swift and effective decision-making process, making the EU unable to respond effectively on the foreign policy front.
Italian PM Mario Draghi, the Italian Prime Minister, spoke bluntly about the EU’s foreign policy in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on May 3. The new “whatever it takes” for the Italian Prime Minister would be the development of a more unified European foreign policy, as well as a common, coordinated, and effective defence, even if it would mean altering the founding treaties. The picture of a strong Union is summed up in the expression used by the PM “pragmatic federalism“, with streamlined decision-making by creating a more powerful and credible Europe on the international scene.
Implementation of art. 31/3 of the EU Treaty, which allows for the adoption of a majority vote based on a European Council resolution, would be the valid alternative that would not necessitate any practical changes to the treaties. With the recent application of the “constructive abstention” by Austria, Ireland, and Malta, countries can be exempted from carrying out a specific decision taken by the Council, enabling the treaty to already offer means to ease the worries of hesitant governments. It provides a way to get around blocks without necessarily subordinating member countries’ will to the Union’s supranational structure. Indeed, for issues that countries deem “vital and stated reasons of national policy” at risk, it is prevented from reissuing the issue to the Council. Qualified majority voting, which is already used in Council voting on other issues, would not be a radical change, but rather a compromise that aims to create a more compact and cohesive Europe in foreign policy.
Improving the European Council’s foreign policy capacity
In recent years, the intergovernmental component has become more prominent in the Union’s foreign affairs. Even in high-profile topics, the Foreign Affairs Council is having its influence weakened in favour of the European Council.
The Council was given the operational authority by the Lisbon Treaty to “take the appropriate decisions” in terms of foreign and security policy.
Is the organization, however, truly prepared for such a role? Unfortunately, the Council does not appear to be able to respond effectively to the Union’s rising foreign policy challenges, at times even appearing to operate in a disorganized manner with other Union institutions. There is no denying that the organization has structural difficulties. To begin with, the Council only meets four times a year, posing a barrier to timely and accurate discussion. Prime ministers tend to view world issues through the prism of their own country, resulting in short-term remedies rather than long-term ones in some cases. Potential Union-wide strategic solutions debates are frequently pushed to make way for more urgent matters that, rightfully, must be addressed first. The Council’s foreign policy approach consequently takes on the form of “crisis resolutions”, which is vital in a hard and pressing situation like a post-war scenario but are not a permanent resolution. One possibility is to create a support organization, similar to the National Security Council in Washington, working with the European Council and coordinating its activities. By employing the entire EU system’s resources, it might for example give strategic advice before the plenary discussions, guaranteeing more collaboration and speed not just between foreign policy actors in Brussels, but also across member states. The aim would be to harmonize shared assessments by encouraging greater collaboration not only among small consultation groups, which only include the largest member countries, but also among all 27 member countries, resulting in concrete and daily cooperation over time aiming for greater coherence and diplomacy in foreign policy matters.
Europe’s response to the conflict in Ukraine was unquestionably positive, but was it entirely due to the Union’s organizational capacity? Although the Union has had remarkable “success” in the recent foreign policy challenges, the significant impact of other players cannot be ignored. The active leadership of the Biden presidency was able to coordinate member nations’ responses, weakening the Union’s credibility and coherence on the international stage. The Strategic Compass of the EU will – ideally – provide a powerful push for the establishment of a more effective foreign policy. Better decision-making thanks to majority vote in the Council as well as increased capacity for the European Council to drive the policy process might greatly improve the EU’s international capability.