European Union Foreign Policy and the Failure of Potential

Retired Army Colonel Fitz Fitzpatrick discusses the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defense Policy and the EU’s efforts to address crises in Libya, Ukraine and Syria. He argues that the EU has struggled to establish foreign and defense policies that are independent from the United States, and only an existential crisis will push the EU to fulfill its potential as an actor on the world stage.

Fitz Fitzpatrick is a retired Army Officer.  He was a Colonel in the Civil Affairs Branch.  He holds a Master of Arts in Geography from the Johns Hopkins G.W.C. Whiting School of Engineering (1996).  More recently, he earned a Master of International Public Policy at the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (2017).


The European Union (EU) is not a state, nor does it exercise foreign or defense policy in the manner of a state. In terms of wealth and population, the EU has the potential to be one of three or four great powers in the emerging international system. Its member states choose, instead, to maintain an intergovernmental organization rather than pursuing the kind of supranational structure needed to activate that potential. This choice is rooted in a history of pacifism and of a reliance on American hegemony.

A more effective and muscular foreign policy would increase the European Union’s credibility on the international stage and reinforce its ability to function as a normative power. EU normative power currently operates to model values and behaviors to small and medium sized states, but it could conceivably be employed to socialize the actions of a hegemonic United States, a resurgent Russia, and an emerging China. With a population of 500 million and an annual GDP between $16 and $17 trillion, the European Union is in the same league as these other three. (For comparison, United States population is roughly 350 million and GDP is roughly $18 trillion; Russia population is about 143 million, with GDP of about $1.3 trillion; Estimates for China are population about 1,357 million and GDP about $11 trillion.)[1]

European leaders have expressed concern as subsequent Republican administrations, under Reagan, Bush II, and now Trump, have increasingly deviated from the established norms and values of the international system. During the first term of the Reagan administration, America took an increasingly aggressive approach to relations with the Soviet Union, and the Soviets seemed to reciprocate. Previous efforts toward détente and arms control were denigrated, and Europeans felt an increasing risk of being caught in a nuclear conflict between the two superpowers. European Economic Community (EEC) foreign policy, organized as the European Political Cooperation (EPC), had achieved success with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe but was not integrated to the extent of being able to present a common response to Reagan’s policies.

Had the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), established under the 1992 Treaty on European Union (TEU), been more muscular, the Europeans might have been better prepared to confront or influence the policy decisions of the George W. Bush administration. They might have had the leverage to demand that terror suspects be tried at the International Criminal Court, rather than being secreted at the extra-legal Guantanamo facility. A stronger Europe could have pressed for real progress toward a Two-State Solution, rather than accepting American acquiescence to the expansionist policies of Israeli prime minister Sharon and his successors. Even if it was unable to discourage America’s invasion of Iraq, a more muscular Europe might have sought the provision of an occupation force sufficient to maintain law and order, consistent with international law and best practices. The unpredictable foreign policy approach demonstrated thus far by the Trump Administration might be mitigated by a European Union with the strength to act as a ‘designated driver’ in the international arena.

This article discusses the postwar situation of Western Europe (subsequently the European Union) as a de facto protectorate of the United States and the challenge of establishing common European foreign and defense policies independent of the western hegemon. Despite the recent (2007) establishment of a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the EU has continued to struggle. Case studies of EU efforts to address crises in Libya, Ukraine, and Syria illustrate the ongoing difficulties. The article concludes with a somewhat pessimistic assessment that only an existential crisis, or a significant foreign outrage, will push the Europeans to meet their potential on the world stage.

An Argument for Independence

In 1982, during the early years of the Reagan Administration, Hedley Bull published an article entitled “Civilian Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?” in which he advocated for a more muscular (Western) European defense policy, independent from the United States.[2] Such independence would be based on a minimal nuclear deterrent force under European political control and an increase in the size and quality of European conventional forces. While the cost of these capabilities would require sacrifices in other areas, Bull noted that Europe’s improved economic capacity made such sacrifices politically possible. Regarding the Soviet threat, he observed that “the countries of Western Europe are superior to the Soviet Union in population, wealth, technology, and military potential, and the idea that Russia is the naturally dominant power in Europe, against which Europe itself can construct no counter balance without importing outside help, is a very recent one.”[3]

In arguing for independence, Bull cited past difficulties between Europe and America, including over Suez, Vietnam, the October War and the subsequent oil crisis. He criticized Reagan’s approach to US-Soviet relations and cited the danger of nuclear war. He asserted that the ability of Europeans to provide for their own security was consistent with “the first business of any community.”[4]

A common European defense, independent of the United States, would require an increased level of supranational organization. The member states would need to “identify their common and distinct strategic interests, and in relation to these, discuss strategic plans and doctrines, defense budgets, arms, and armed forces.”[5] Bull recognized he was advocating for a military alliance with a high level of political and strategic unity. An effective common defense policy would need to be harnessed to a common foreign policy and would require a common political understanding based on some form of unified structure. In advocating for an independent European defense policy, Bull was arguing against the culture and experience of Western Europe as it had developed in the decades following the Second World War.

Sheltering Under the Hegemon

Today’s EU grew out of the European Coal and Steel Community, which was established with the explicit purpose of preventing future war between the West European States. Coal and steel were essential raw materials of heavy industry and, specifically, of war materiel. Integrating their production would preclude member states from building independent, competitive, military capabilities, or from initiating war to gain control over these resources. It was an inherently pacifist project. The 1957 Treaty of Rome advanced the integration of the initial six members by establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Like the 1833 German Zollverein, the nature of these communities was economic, not military.

Plans for a parallel European Defense Community, which would have established a common European Army, were discussed but never implemented. EEC members were instead incorporated into two separate military alliances. From 1948, Belgium, France, Holland, and Luxembourg participated with Great Britain in the West European Union (WEU). The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949, securing American support in defense of Western Europe against any future (presumably Soviet) aggression. Although the WEU continued to exist, it was effectively subsumed by NATO.

Outside the NATO structure, Western European military capabilities were decreasing. Germany had been defeated and pacified in the Second World War. Britain and France were also weakened and experienced a decline from their former status as military great powers. Both slowly abandoned their colonial possessions, and both were humiliated by the United States during the Suez debacle. French development of a Force de Frappe and British purchase of Polaris did little to conceal the reality that Western Europe had become dependent on American military hegemony.

War between the United States and the Soviet Union, if fought with nuclear weapons, would have created a wasteland in Central Europe. After such a conflict, successful economic recovery would be unimaginable. Pursuit of peace to avert potential war between the two nuclear powers was the rational approach. In 1969, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt initiated a policy of Ostpolitik to reduce tensions with the Soviet dominated states of Eastern Europe. Beginning in June 1973, all nine EEC member states participated in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and subsequently signed the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, despite the increasing economic strength of the EEC members and the relative economic decline of the United States, Western Europe continued to shelter under American military hegemony. The proportional difference in defense expenditures allowed the Europeans to expand their social welfare state and produce internal political stability and high standards of living. The visible difference in living standards between Western and Eastern Europe exacerbated the frustrations of those living under communism, encouraged their demands for change, and no doubt contributed to the revolutions of 1989.

The EEC was never a military alliance. It was formed to pursue peaceful economic cooperation and development. It sheltered under the protection of NATO and the American hegemon. The contribution of economic success to peaceful victory in the Cold War tended to reinforce path dependencies and biases against development of a more muscular European defense policy.

Developing ‘Actorness’

With the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War, the EEC states continued their pursuit of political and economic integration, with the 1992 Treaty on European Union (TEU or Maastricht Treaty) building on the 1986 Single European Act (SEA). The SEA had an economic component which would establish a single market by the end of 1992 and a political component which formalized the intergovernmental nature of EEC foreign policy. The EEC was re-designated as the European Union (EU) and organized around three pillars. The first pillar addressed the supranational activities of the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice. The other two, which addressed the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), were intergovernmental. Because CFSP and JHA involved issues closely tied to ideas of national sovereignty, the intergovernmental pillars relied on cooperative decisions negotiated between officials of the member states.

The inability of the EU to generate an effective response to the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina demonstrated the inadequacy of the CFSP. Writing in 1993, Christopher Hill described the problem as a lack of ‘actorness’. He said that “’[a]ctorness in the world is something which most non-theoretical observers automatically assume that the European [Union] possesses, but which on closer examination might be seriously doubted…the [EU] in foreign policy is solely intergovernmental, and is therefore no more than the sum of what the Member States severally decide.”[6] Eventual American intervention produced the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords and the successful NATO Peacekeeping Operation. The subsequent NATO war over Kosovo was also led by the United States. Continued reliance on the American hegemon demonstrated the inability of the EU to function as an effective unified foreign policy actor.

The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon sought to correct these deficiencies by establishing a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR). The HR is Vice President of the European Commission and chairs the Council of EU Foreign Ministers. Although this provided a venue for increased cooperation among the member states, the CFSP remained effectively intergovernmental. Issues other than Trade, Commerce, and Aid continue to require unanimous agreement by the Heads of State meeting in the Council of the Europe Union. Decisions under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) likewise require unanimous intergovernmental support and have been largely restricted to humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, with the physical defense of Europe remaining the responsibility of NATO.

Three Crises

Since 2011, the CFSP and CSDP have been tested by three crises. The first, in Libya, exposed the inability of the intergovernmental process to deliver timely agreement on a unified response and the inability of even the two strongest member states to conduct extended military action without assistance. The second, in Syria, began concurrently to the Libya crisis but developed more slowly. While the EU response has been unified, the exclusive reliance on sanctions targeting the Assad regime allowed the situation to fester and led to significant loss of life. Finally, the Ukraine crisis exposes a continuing inability or unwillingness of the EU to use force against military aggression.


The Libyan rebellion, which began on 15 February 2011, was one of several Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian regimes. The Libyan opposition forces acquired arms more rapidly and organized themselves more effectively than those in other Arab states. Within a week, rebel forces were in control of Benghazi, the second largest city. By 27 February, they had organized an interim government, the National Transitional Council of Libya (NTC). The conflict took on the characteristics of a civil war between roughly matched forces. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi made repeated public statements indicating his forces would recapture rebel held territory without regard for civilian casualties. Under the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’, the UN Security Council (UNSC), on 26 February, adopted Resolution 1970, demanding an end to the violence and imposing international sanctions on the Gaddafi regime. A second resolution, Resolution 1973 on 17 March, authorized UN member states to use force to protect civilians in harm’s way in Libya.

Parallel to the UNSC actions, the EU HR, Lady Catherine Ashton, issued a condemnation of the violence on 20 February and French and British officials argued for the EU to take an active military role. Germany opposed military involvement, and Italian President Berlusconi expressed reluctance, due to Italy’s economic interests in Libya. French President Sarkozy, facing reelection the following year, publicly criticized the HR for failing to take a more aggressive stance. On 10 March, France unilaterally recognized the TNC as the legitimate government of Libya, prior to any agreement being made by the member states to adopt such recognition. Sarkozy’s action was reminiscent of Germany’s unilateral recognition of Croatian independence in 1991, which had forced the hand of the other EU members in the Yugoslav crisis.

Following the UNSC authorization for use of force to protect civilians, France and Britain, supported by the United States, began conducting air strikes on 20 March. These strikes were not endorsed by the Foreign Affairs Council until the following day. While there was likely some prior discussion behind closed doors, France and Britain were clearly operating outside of the CFSP/CSDP framework. After two weeks of bombing, NATO assumed responsibility for military operations in Libya, due in part to France and Britain having spent their available stocks of munitions. Although ostensibly ‘leading from behind’, America continued to serve as the hegemon.

A proposed deployment of EU ground troops (EUFOR Libya) to protect humanitarian operations and displaced civilians was approved by the European Council on 1 April and offered to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but OCHA declined the offer. Although the European Commission eventually organized donation by member states of over 150 billion Euros to support the humanitarian effort, this donation stands in comparison to the failure of the intergovernmental process to produce a more muscular response. Delay caused by Germany and Italy, and the readiness of France and Britain to act independently, demonstrated the inability of the HR to orchestrate an effective, unified response despite the changes implemented by the Lisbon Treaty. Decisive action continued to depend on NATO and the United States.


The crisis in Syria began with demonstrations and protests in February 2011. The Assad regime responded with excessive brutality and, by May 2011, the EU had implemented a full range of sanctions targeting the regime, its cronies, and their sources of income. Economic sanctions are politically easier to implement than military actions, and these were not opposed by the member states. However, it is not clear that the sanctions had any effect on policy decisions made by the Syrian government. The regime faced what it considered an existential threat, consisting of multiple rebel groups supported by various external enemies. The impact of the sanctions was not proportional to the regime’s fear of being defeated by the rebels.

As the opposition became more violent, the protestors had evolved into rebels and insurgents, and were eventually organized as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under the Syrian Opposition Council (SOC). This opposition received ongoing lethal and non-lethal support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, while the Assad regime was supported by its allies, Iran and Hezbollah. To some extent, the civil war developed into a proxy war between the Shia and the Sunni powers. To a lesser degree, it likewise became a contest between the United States and Russia.

Early in the war, individual EU member states began supplying rebel groups with non-lethal aid (food, medicine, protective equipment, etc.). In May 2013, the Council of the European Union tentatively agreed to permit member states to provide lethal aid (weapons, ammunition) to the rebels, dependent on assurances that the supported groups would adhere to the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and would not forward the materiel to groups likely to violate the LOAC.[7]

There is something cynical about strong states supplying weapons to belligerents in a conflict that neither side appears able to win. While the Assad regime committed and continues to commit extreme violations of human rights, it is not clear that extending the war in the hope of regime change is less problematic than leaving Assad in power as part of a peace agreement. As the war entered its sixth year, it contributed to both the 2015-16 refugee crisis in Europe and the rise of the ISIS terrorist organization in ungoverned spaces.

Pursuing continued sanctions on the Syrian regime and allowing member states to supply non-lethal (and even, potentially, lethal) aid was the easily agreed upon intergovernmental approach. While lacking the assets to intervene militarily, the EU had other options that it might have pursued. For example, the belligerents on both sides were being armed and supplied by outside powers. Diplomatic and economic sanctions that targeted the governments and citizens of states fueling the war might have been more effective than those applied to the Assad government. While the contributing countries had interests in the fight, their anticipated gains were not of the same scale as the existential fear facing the Syrian government. It is more likely that the costs of sanctions would have been proportional to, or even outweighed, these gains, thereby producing leverage sufficient to effect a change in behavior.

Such an approach would have required the EU to confront not only Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Russia and the United States. It would have been a bold move and would have demonstrated a level of engagement appropriate to a foreign policy actor with the wealth, population, and potential strength of the European Union. As an exercise of normative values, it would have presented the EU as an equal, or at least as a near-peer, of Russia and the United States.


The Ukraine crisis has had both an internal and an external aspect, one having to do with issues of corruption and the behavior of security services, the other involving Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for anti-government rebels in three eastern Ukrainian provinces.

The EU established a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Ukraine in 1994 as part of a continuing effort to ensure political and economic stability in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe. In 2008, the EU began negotiating an Association Agreement (AA) with Ukraine, despite concerns over increased repression and democratic backsliding under the Presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement would provide Ukraine with economic benefits as part of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). It would also serve EU interests by addressing issues of organized crime, human trafficking, and illegal migration in the new border region.

In November 2013, Yanukovych announced that he would not sign the AA, having decided instead to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with Russia and several other former Soviet states. His decision was met with peaceful protests that were violently dispersed by Security Forces. This produced greater anger, grew into a crisis, and led to Yanukovych being deposed by the Ukrainian Parliament. He was replaced by a pro-EU government which then signed the AA. Acting to secure Russian interests, Vladimir Putin sent troops into the eastern provinces of Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, and into Crimea.

To address questions of internal legitimacy, and to provide political support to the Ukrainian government, the Foreign Affairs Council agreed to deploy a civilian Security Sector Reform (SSR) mission to Ukraine, consisting of senior ministerial officials. This EU Advisory Mission (EUAM) would work for up to two years to assist Ukrainian civilian security services in adopting international best practices, eliminating corruption, and restoring public confidence in the rule of law.[8]

EU member states were divided in their views of how to respond to the Russian incursions. Britain, Poland, and the Baltic States advocated a hard line to deter potential future aggressive behavior. France and Germany, concurrently involved in significant economic dealings with Russia, supported a more moderate approach. Despite varied sensitivities, the European Council agreed to a package of sanctions intended to encourage Russia to seek a diplomatic solution with Ukraine. The use of military force to counter Putin’s adventurism was not seriously considered.

While deployment of the EUAM was consistent with EU policy to encourage political and economic stability in the neighboring states, the use of sanctions was unlikely to affect Russian behavior in Ukraine. Russian gains associated with maintaining access to the resources and facilities located in Crimea and the eastern provinces likely exceeded the costs imposed by the sanctions. Putin’s willingness to engage in direct military action should have indicated that sanctions would be insufficient to modify his behavior. His calculations likely included an assumption of continued inability or unwillingness of the EU to meet force with force.

In all three of these cases, the EU response was ineffective either because of an inability to agree on the use of force, an inability to generate the appropriate level of force, or an unwillingness to confront equal or near-peer actors who produced, or expected to benefit from, the crises.

Moving Forward?

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the world moved from a bi-polar system to a “unipolar moment.” Europe has continued to rely on American hegemony, despite an increasing tendency of US administrations to deviate from established international norms. Despite seeking “ever closer union,” Europe has failed to develop unified, responsive CSDP capabilities sufficient to advance a muscular CFSP.

The evolving international system consists of an America in relative decline, a resurgent Russia, and a rising China. The EU has the potential to become the fourth player at the table and, effectively, the defender of western values. This would require transition from inter-governmentalism to a more supranational arrangement. However, the member states currently lack the will to do so. The three recent crises represent missed opportunities where more unified and/or more muscular policies might have better served the norms and values espoused by the Union.

Eventually, an existential crisis which threatens the stability of the member states or the living standard of their citizens may lead to a more assertive posture.   Alternatively, the aberrant behavior of some foreign actor, surpassing what was feared in Libya or what has been experienced in Ukraine or in Syria, may produce domestic outrage and political pressure for change. Absent either of those stimuli, the EU will likely remain focused on internal political and economic concerns, and the future of the international system will remain in other hands.



Bull, Hedley. “Civilian Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?” Journal of Common Market Studies  21, issue 2, (1982): 149-170.

Fabbrini, Sergio. “The European Union and the Libyan Crisis.” International Politics  51, no. 2 (2014): 177-195.

Ferreira-Pereira, Laura, and Guedes-Vieira, Alena Vysotskaya. “Ukraine in the European Union’s Partnership Policy: A Case of Institutionalized Ambiguity.” European Politics & Society 16, no. 2 (2015): 143-158.

Hill, Christopher. “The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualizing Europe’s International Role.” Journal of Common Market Studies 31, issue 3 (1993): 305-328.

Hill Christopher. “Renationalizing or Regrouping? EU Foreign Policy since 11 September 2001.” Journal of Common Market Studies 42, issue 1 (2004): 143-163.

Koenig, Nicole. “Between Conflict Management and Role Conflict: The EU in the Libyan Crisis.” European Security 23, no. 3 (2014): 250-269.

Manners, Ian. “Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?” Journal of Common Market Studies 40, issue 2 (2002): 235-258.

Marchi Balossi-Restelli, Ludovica. “The Common Security and Defence Policy in a State of Flux? The Case of Libya in 2011.” Perspectives on European Politics & Society 15, no. 1 (2014): 88-105.

Moret, Erica S. “Humanitarian Impacts of Economic Sanctions on Iran and Syria.” European Security 24, no. 1 (2015): 120-140.

Nováky, Niklas I.M. “Why So Soft? The European Union in Ukraine.” Contemporary Security Policy 36, no. 2 (2015): 244-266.

Ojanen, Hanna. “The EU and NATO: Two Competing Models for a Common Defense Policy.” Journal of Common Market Studies 44, issue1 (2006): 57-76.

Ruys, Tom. “Of Arms, Funding and Non-Lethal Assistance: Issues Surrounding Third-State Intervention in the Syrian Civil War.” Chinese Journal of International Law 13, no. 1 (2014): 13-53.

Samokhvalov, Vsevolod. “Ukraine between Russia and the European Union: Triangle Revisited.” Europe-Asia Studies 67, no. 9 (2015): 1371-1393.

Seeberg, Peter. “The EU and the Syrian Crisis: The Use of Sanctions and the Regime’s Strategy for Survival.” Mediterranean Politics. 20 (2015):18-35.



Top photograph of the EU flag, taken  from European Union Naval Force Somalia Operation Atalanta and used under Creative Commons license for reuse (

[1] “United States vs European Union GDP vs Russia vs China,” IECONOMICS, accessed February 2017,

[2] Hedley Bull, “Civilian Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?” Journal of Common Market Studies 21, issue 2 (1982): 149-170.

[3] Ibid 157.

[4] Ibid 156.

[5] Ibid 164.

[6] Christopher Hill, “The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualizing Europe’s International Role,” Journal of Common Market Studies 31, issue 3 (1993): 308.

[7] Tom Ruys, “Of Arms, Funding and Non-Lethal Assistance: Issues Surrounding Third-State Intervention in the Syrian Civil War,” Chinese Journal of International Law 13, no. 1 (2014): 14.

[8] Niklas I. M. Nováky, “Why So Soft? The European Union in Ukraine,” Contemporary Security Policy 36, no. 2 (2015): 244.

Fitz Fitzpatrick
Fitz Fitzpatrick

Fitz Fitzpatrick is a retired Army Officer. He was a Colonel in the Civil Affairs Branch. He holds a Master of Arts in Geography from the Johns Hopkins G.W.C. Whiting School of Engineering (1996). More recently, he earned a Master of International Public Policy at the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (2017).