More than 20 years ago the former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger said that for him the EU would not exist unless it has a single telephone number he could use to call Europe.

The key problem today is NOT if the EU has or not a single telephone number. There are other voices that enter the foreign policy debate. EU policies and statements cannot be more than the compromise of 27 Member States.  Member States are still the primary actors in setting the EU’s foreign policies, objectives and priorities. EU member states want to guard their own foreign policy interests. Their support for a common policy only goes to the point that it does not cut across those interests. Then you have the large member states versus smaller states. Where the ‘Big Five’ are ready to make their responses heard before Brussels,  smaller states do not have the political clout to pre-empt positions by making early unilateral statements in response to events in the wider world.

Is this cause for concern? Not necessarily. It is not diversity of opinion in policy formulation that matters, but whether that diversity can be harnessed to decision-making that works and incorporated into institutions (European Commission, Council, European Parliament) that can reach decisions and implement them.

What is more important is the quality of the decisions the EU makes. The risk the EU faces is that the common foreign policy it develops will tend to be overly cautious or fail to take any decisions at all in areas where consensus is elusive. Another issue is how it can consult with other partners as policy is formulated and how that policy can adapt to changing conditions. If common positions once adopted become rigid instruments that are difficult to amend, they could have a serious negative impact on the international influence of EU member states.

It will be difficult for Europe to agree on a single voice for foreign policy in the foreseeable future. The primacy of the national states in foreign affairs will prevail and it is illusionary that sovereign member states will give the EU exclusive powers on critical external policy issues in the short-term. While the 27 EU governments agree on many aspects regarding the overall direction and values of the foreign affair policies, they do not all have the same strategic interests. Yet it is equally clear that a collection of European countries that speak with different voices will be marginalised and that they are unlikely to have much influence on policy-making in Washington, Beijing, Moscow or elsewhere.

More political commitments and a common will is needed to change this situation.


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