The EU taking to the global stage

Written by Mark Briggs on . Posted in Current features, Features

Robert Schuman delivers his 1950 speech proposing the establishment of a European Coal and Steel Community.

Robert Schuman delivers his 1950 speech proposing the establishment of a European Coal and Steel Community.

Since its inception in the 1950s the European project has sought to be one of cooperation to the mutual benefit of its members.  There is strength in numbers, economies of scale, efficiency in pooling resources with in a union of nations that would be impossible as 28 separate countries.

But the European Union is not a unified state, not even a federal amalgamation of nations. It is a voluntary association of member states.

What exactly can the EU achieve on the world stage that individual member states could not? What are the areas it makes sense for the EU to speak with one voice, and where does it face restraint?


Perhaps it is only natural that a community that began life as a common market for coal and steel is at its most unified when discussing trade.

“You have one trade policy speaking for 500 million citizens,” says Ulrich Krotz, Professor of International Relations and Joint Chair between the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and the Department of Political and Social Sciences. “There are other ways the EU relates to the external world. But with trade, it is supranational.”

A Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which would open up the markets of EU member states to US trade, and vice versa, is currently being negotiated between The White House and The European Commission. And, although the 28 member states of the EU are all members of the WTO in their own right, in most cases the European Commission takes the lead and speaks on behalf of its members.

The benefits of this single trading bloc mean even non EU European countries (Switzerland and Norway) pay to be part of the European Free Trade Association.

Foreign policy

Up until recently the realm of high politics was the domain of the member states: “High politics meaning foreign policy, security, defence, everything that is to do with the use of force, or the potential use of force.”

Compared to trade it is an area where member states play a much larger role. Here the EU works more intergovernmentally rather than supranationally.

The EU currently operates around 20 shared military operations such as anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. And all but six of the member states are also members of NATO with whom the EU has a “strategic partnership”.

“I would call this one kind of integration, not the super-national one but it is integration,” says Krotz, who is currently researching International Relations in Europe, “It will not turn supranational in the next 10/15 years.”

However Foreign Policy has seen a major step towards integration with the establishment in the Lisbon Treaty of the External Action Service (EAS), the EU’s diplomatic arm.

EUI alumna Hadewych Hazelzet, works for the EAS and says despite the increasing relevance of the service it doesn’t diminish the role of the member states.

“I think this will develop further…Hopefully in 10 years it will be stronger, but the member states will still have their own policy. The fundamentals of the EU will not change.”

Hazelzet says the EAS is already finding its niche, taking on activities that for logistic or political reasons individual countries cannot engage. High Representative Catherine Ashton mediated high level talks over Iran’s nuclear programme in Geneva last year; she also acted as an observer meeting the ousted Mohammad Morsi in jail after he was removed from power.

However critics say the EAS is slow to react, and that without military support its effectiveness is limited. Something Hazelzet disagrees with:

“We have the toolbox; we have everything at our disposal from trade, development, humanitarian assistance, but also military force. In theory we could call on member states to send forces.”

“It may appear slow, but we take a long term approach.”

Hazelzet says to understand the EU’s foreign policy you need to understand the structure of the organisation. Despite the apparent challenge of getting 28 states to agree a coherent foreign policy, common values, and the practicalities of living within the EU make life easier.

“Usually in the face of conflict or a crisis there is a common outcry and it is easier to find a shared stance. I think there is a certain commitment that together they are stronger.”

“One member state could hold the machinery back a little bit, but that member state knows they will need the support of the other member states in the future. They are at the negotiating table every day on a range of issues and this is taken into account.”


Despite increasing integration in many fields there are areas where it makes it less practical or beneficial for the EU to act as a uniform entity.

While there may be increasing cooperation in military operation a single army appears impractical. Such a move would involve the two European nuclear powers – Britain and France – granting at least some access to these weapons to other members. Something Krotz currently regards as “unthinkable”.

The EU can help facilitate diplomacy and high level politics, but power still lies with countries. “I don’t think in 10 or 15 years Europe will be a political super power like the United States or China,” says Krotz.

Despite its growing importance on the world stage the EU is irregularly represented in intergovernmental organisations, especially those established at Bretton Woods.

While a full member of the WTO the EU is not a member of either the World Bank or IMF. A member of both the G8 and the G20 the EU is only an ‘observer’ at the UN, although France and the UK sit on the Security Council. While Hazelzet would like to see this change it would appear unlikely in the near future.

“Ideally yes it would make sense to have the EU on the Security Council. It could only happen if there was a radical overhaul of the Security Council. It would be extremely complicated to get a world agreement that reflected today’s power structures, but who knows. It would be a good addition.”

According to Krotz the EU sitting alongside or replacing member states on the Security Council would be an “extraordinary leap”.

The organisation of the UN is based on the power structures of the mid-20th century. However at the G8 and G20, which were established more recently the EU is represented alongside member states.

The meeting of the G8 and G20 groups are attended by the president of the European Commission and Council along with heads of national governments.  “You can have the EU [represented] in a supranational and an intergovernmental way and they do not necessarily say or want the same thing,” says Krotz who sees this as a model for how the EU can interact with the world.

Speaking with three voices

According to Krotz, 60 years of European integration have not produced the power structures that many predicted: “The classic idea is you have more EU and less nation states… the outcome or sixty years of European integration is that a number of things that scholars and policy makers expected did not happen.”

Krotz believes there is no contradiction to the EU speaking with three voices; the supranational, intergovernmental and as member states depending on topics and circumstance. In trade the EU can speak with one voice, in environmental policy the member states can work together, in foreign policy member states can have common objectives while pursuing their own policy.

The EU will grow and evolve to find its feet on the world stage, but this needn’t be at the expense of its member states.

These voices have emerged as a result of years of messy integration “a mix between choice and necessity.” It is a pattern that looks set to continue for the next 60 years.



Ulrich Krotz is Professor at the European University Institute, where he holds the Chair in International Relations in the Department of Political and Social Sciences and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

Hadewych Hazelzet is a coordinator of conflict prevention and mediation instruments division at European External Action Service.