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Europe's Foreign Policy:
Do they have one?

By Dean Broadbent
Posted: January 2006

For hundreds of years, Europe was the center of the world. In science, technology, the arts and trade, Europe was the engine driving the development of the modern world. Such a claim can no longer be made, and Europe is at best one regional power among several. With the rise of China and the decline of a world centered on the Atlantic, European nations are collectively and individually searching for identity and their place in the world. Domestically this means dealing with thorny issues of immigration, ethnic and religious tensions, and an ageing population. But it is in the field of foreign relations that Europe seeks to define itself, and where it is trying to play a global role in a world increasingly crowded with global players.

To speak of EU foreign policy is to a large extent to speak of Europe’s foreign policy as an alternative to the United States’. They compete as models of western political systems, each proffering its own values and methods as superior, and foreign policy is the primary showcase for this. Where the US takes a hard military line against its perceived enemies in the ‘War on Terror’ (aided by Britain and several smaller European countries, it is true), the EU as a whole has tried to extol the virtues of diplomacy and incentives in place of threats, ultimatums and use of force. For examples of this, one only needs to think of France’s and Germany’s staunch opposition to the Iraq war, and, more recently, the attempts by the ‘EU3’ – Germany, France and Britain – to persuade Iran to abandon any idea of acquiring nuclear weapons. The attempts may not have been altogether successful, but the fact that talks are ongoing, whilst the US has no formal relations with Iran, marks a significant divergence of policies: soft power versus hard power.

The EU has also sought to use trade to demonstrate its values (and its difference from the US). It has established preferred trading relationships with a score of small, vulnerable communities, such as Palestine, controversially, as part of an ‘ethical’ trade policy, and given aid usually without substantial economic conditions attached. This has been especially true with the Europeans’ former colonies, with each European nation giving extra preference and aid to those nations it formerly controlled (a trend that has often irritated the US, such as in the dispute over banana quotas). The EU also allows tariff-free access to its markets for the world’s Least Developed Countries, where the US and Japan do not. The US, in contrast, has often used trade deals and aid packages as a means to open up the economies of developing countries, and to leverage support for its foreign policies. Chile, for example, almost lost an agreed trade deal as punishment for its failure to support the Iraq war. It is not a game always played out with third parties, either; recent years have seen the EU much more willing to stand up to the US when its interests are at stake, such as with the ongoing Airbus/Boeing subsidy drama.

The biggest weapon in the EU’s foreign policy arsenal is undoubtedly EU membership. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, membership of the EU has been the long-term goal of nearly all the EU’s neighbors, many former Soviet states. Membership discussions require applicants to make reforms in human rights, democracy, the rule of law, protection of minorities, peaceful settlement of disputes and a functioning market economy – all those things the US tries so hard to encourage, pressure, or otherwise force target countries to accept, usually without a great deal of success – and they are doing it voluntarily. The prospect of EU membership has been perhaps a greater force for positive change in the world over the past fifteen years than anything else. It may not be able to include the entire world, but if it can offer membership to countries as different from itself as Turkey, and perhaps one day with such troublesome history as Israel and Russia, enlargement may yet hold the key to Europe’s desire to shape the world once more.


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