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The EU global strategy, a triumph of hope over experience

EU foreign policy is characterised by a few big countries that see the EU as just another multilateral forum writes Stefan Lehne, in which they pursue their national foreign policy goals; a number of small states that enjoy the opportunity to sound off on international developments but shy away from the costs and risks of serious engagement; and a few others that would like to do more but are unhappily stuck in between. All this takes place in a dysfunctional institutional framework beset by turf wars and against a background of a series of deep crises, which have caused a parallel decline of the EU’s foreign policy ambition and its international clout.

You will find none of this in EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s European global strategy. The point of this document is not what EU foreign policy is, but what it should be. By identifying common interests, principles, and priorities, the strategy aims at instilling in member states a “unity of purpose” that will translate into “unity in action.” As such, this is unobjectionable. Any strategy is by definition aspirational. There is, however, a fine line between the aspirational and wishful thinking. Britain’s exit from the EU just possibly tips the strategy from one to the other.

Notwithstanding the difficult context, the paper is substantive and interesting. The point of departure is much gloomier than former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s European Security Strategy of 2003, which started with the words “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free.” Mogherini’s world is more “connected, contested and complex.” The EU is no longer running it in partnership with the United States but is facing a variety of severe internal and external challenges.

The real strength of the new strategy lies in its comprehensive scope. It recognizes that the EU must become more joined up across internal and external policies. The need to overcome institutional stovepipes and bring all the EU’s instruments together in a coordinated way is systematically worked into the entire text. Particularly welcome—because long overdue—is the intention to make the EU’s development policy “more flexible and aligned with our strategic priorities.”

There is a lot of emphasis on military capacity (which looks less plausible now that one of the EU’s two leading military powers has dropped out). But the strategy remains opaque on how these military means would be used. While Solana ambitiously announced “a strategic culture that fosters early, rapid, and when necessary, robust intervention,” Mogherini avoids the i-word altogether and speaks rather vaguely of providing security when peace agreements are reached and of supporting local ceasefires.

Mogherini denies any contradiction between interests and values, but in fact the tension between the two is very much present in the text. Advocating “principled pragmatism,” Mogherini aims for a more realist approach without abandoning the EU’s transformational agenda. The new catchword “resilience,” used again and again in the text, seems to indicate a priority for stability. But different from the traditional meaning, “resilience” is defined as the “capacity to reform,” allowing values to reenter through the backdoor.

As the text was meant to find the approval of all the member states, a lot of it is carefully crafted along established EU positions. The most useful parts are therefore the chapters on subjects that do not normally feature in European Council conclusions, such as conflict management and global governance, as well as the concluding chapter on the way ahead.

EU leaders welcomed the presentation of the strategy and invited the high representative, the European Commission, and the Council of Ministers to take the work forward. This was both weaker than what happened to the Solana paper in 2003, which had been adopted by the member states, and stronger as it calls for follow-up action. And this is a crucial point. If the strategy is another one-off event, it will be not much more than a new toy for the think tank community. But if it becomes the starting point of systematic efforts of strategic analysis, then it could help infuse EU foreign policy with a greater sense of purpose.

This would involve adjusting the existing geographic and thematic strategies and writing additional strategic papers, periodic assessments of the state of implementation of the global strategy, and, eventually, a new process of strategic reflection. Mogherini also rightly highlights the importance of strengthening the knowledge base of EU foreign policy. The European External Action Service and the commission already have considerable expertise in the EU’s overseas delegations and in their headquarters. If this expertise were deepened further and employed more proactively and politically, it would provide decisionmakers with solid collective analysis. This should help overcome the fragmentation that constrains EU foreign policy today.

The context for implementing the new strategy couldn’t be more difficult. It is entirely possible that the centrifugal forces that are currently tearing at the EU are just too strong to allow for any meaningful strengthening of the EU’s foreign policy. However, this is certainly no excuse not to try. And by submitting this document, Federica Mogherini has provided a valuable impetus to such an attempt.

Stefan Lehne is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. This article was first published by Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe, which is published under the auspices of Carnegie Europe. ore information can be found at

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