The European Union’s role on the international stage is far from easy to grasp. In terms of trade and development cooperation, the EU has been able to emerge as a globally-recognised key player. In the strictly political domain, however, the EU’s identity is far more blurred. Over time, the European institutions have certainly acquired important powers over foreign affairs, security and defence, but the complexity of the institutional mechanisms governing these powers and the unanimous voting rule have prevented the EU from asserting itself globally with a clearly defined role.
This has resulted in a confusing situation with the EU coming and going from the scene depending on the issue being discussed and the mood of the members of the European Council. Kosovo, Iraq, Russia, Lebanon, the UN, Africa and Iran – when it does put in an appearance, the EU’s presence at big international security summits is in constant flux, the extent of its involvement and influence varying widely.
Against such a backdrop, it is difficult to define exactly what the EU’s role in the world is. Some analysts, like Hanns Maull, argue that the EU cannot be considered as a traditional power because it wields its influence through what it is and what it represents rather than what it actually does. In other words, the EU is a passive rather than a proactive power.
This judgement is a little over-severe. In some situations, the EU has proved itself highly active – in the case of Africa, for example, where its action is often underestimated by commentators and the media. This does not alter the fact, however, that the EU does not appear as a global player that is capable of coherently and effectively asserting itself in the long-term. Although exaggerated, Maull’s characterisation has the merit of illustrating the nature of the problem facing the EU outside its borders. It is a weak player despite having a considerable power of influence. Its ability to make use of this power of influence is the main foreign relations challenge that will have to be addressed in the reform of the European treaties.