European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 24: The EU as a Global Actor

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The great powers of the nineteenth century were European, and exerted global influence mainly through their empires and trading interests. But the toll of two world wars left behind a relatively tame and introspective Europe, and the EEC in its early years was too focused on internal challenges to much think about its global role; western Europe followed the lead of the United States, while its eastern states were dominated by the Soviet Union, and a few holdouts tried to remain neutral.

By the 1970s, the logic of Community members working together on a broader range of foreign policy issues was becoming more clear, but it was only with the end of the Cold War that all began to change. Eastern Europe was freed from Soviet control, the divide between east and west began to close, the borders of the European marketplace expanded, and enlargement took the EU first to the Russian border and then into the former Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War also meant a change in the nature of security issues, the soft power preferences of the Europeans becoming more distinct from the hard power abilities of the United States.

Red faces were generated by the weak and divided EU response to the 1990–91 Gulf war and the Balkan crises of the 1990s, few really believing that the EU had the means to be much of a global actor (mainly because it lacked a combined military or a common defence policy), and European leaders regularly reiterated the need for the US and the EU to work in concert. And yet there was mounting evidence that the EU voice was being finally heard on pressing international issues, that its global economic power mattered, and that its global role was changing.
  • Understanding the global role of the EU depends on how we understand power in the international system, long conventionally associated with military power and with states.
  • Talk of a Cold War bipolar system was briefly replaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union by talk of a unipolar system based on US hegemony, but this has since been replaced with talk of a multipolar system bringing in new powers such as China and India, but curiously often overlooking the EU.
  • Depending on how we understand the international system, there is evidence of the EU emerging as a new kind of power based on idealist principles, with a preference for the use of multilateralism, civilian power, and soft rather than hard instruments of influence.
  • The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy has been less a common policy than a means to setting shared positions, and it has suffered from a lack of leadership and focus.
  • The EU is a more impressive military power than most people realize, but it has made only limited progress along the path to a common security policy.
  • Questions remain about what the EU should be able to achieve in security policy, how far it should develop policy independence from the United States, and how much it should continue to be driven by the needs of NATO.
  • Buoyed by the size of the single market and by the near-completion of a Common Commercial Policy, the EU has become a trading superpower.
    Its trading power is clearly reflected in the number of disputes in which it has been involved within the World Trade Organization.