Theories of the Making of European Union Foreign Policy

Essay, 2005

13 Pages



1 Introduction

2 Explaining European Integration: Contending Approaches in IR Theory and Political Science
2.1 Neorealism and the Intergovernmental Perspective: National Governments as Central Actors in the Bargaining of International Outcomes
2.2 Neoliberalism and the Neofunctionalist Legacy: the Logic of Spillover Effects and Sequential Integration of Different Social Sectors
2.3 Constructivist Approaches: Transnational Discourses, Social Learning and the Impact of Europeanisation

3 Classical Foreign Policy Analysis and its Shortcomings: Challenges to the Conventional Study of Foreign Policy in an Emerging Context of Multi-level Governance
3.1 The EU as a Complex Political System sui generis: Why Traditional IR Theory Cannot Account for Many Developments in the ‘European Realm’
3.2 A Synthetic View of European Union Foreign Policy-making: Bridging the Gap between Rationalist and Interpretative Analysis?

4 Conclusion: a Variety of Theories for a Variety of Questions



‘[European Political Cooperation/The Common Foreign and Security Policy; J.-H. P.] is an alliance which has gradually expanded its scope and responsibilities, as Europe’s external environment has become less stable. To splice a little constructivism onto realism, Venus may be starting to become more like Mars, or even vice versa. The gender stereotypes may be breaking down’ (Hill and Smith, 2005b: 390).

1 Introduction

In spite of the growing empirical significance of the European Union (EU) as a ‘soft power’ over the past decades,[1] scholars of International Relations[2] (IR) have found it difficult to identify a single theoretical framework to explain the making of European Foreign Policy (EFP). The reasons for this apparent failure of rigorous theory-building may be twofold. On the one hand, there is still much debate about what the EU—the ontological object of inquiry—actually is. On the other hand, many authors have taken a self-critical attitude towards their own discipline, emphasising that there is still a multiplicity of convictions as to how we can best theorise EFP from an IR perspective.[3]

Although detailed analyses of the specific pattern of the EU’s external relations have indeed been marginalised within the subject for a long time (Andreatta, 2005: 19), it seems plausible to trace this lack of theoretical coherence back to the nature of EFP itself. It is often argued that the EU is a political system ‘ sui generis ’ (Keohane, 2002: 749), a complex structure that is ‘neither a state nor a non-state actor, and neither a conventional international organization nor an international regime’ (Ginsberg, 1999: 432). In a similar vein, some observers assert that the EU might most suitably be characterised as a hybrid political sphere that does not easily lend itself to classical Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA).[4] In fact, the major IR perspectives on EU foreign policy-making—neorealist, neoliberal and constructivist—appear to be largely incompatible in this respect. Within each framework, certain claims are made which effectively rule out or downgrade the validity and reliability of key premises in rival approaches. Therefore, the central question posed in this essay is: Which theory best explains the making of EU foreign policy? And if there is no single theoretical paradigm, might there be any potential for an analytical synthesis in order to understand the particular features of EFP more appropriately?

To answer these questions, I will first describe the main views on the development of EFP represented by the above-mentioned approaches within the broader context of theorising European integration (Chapter 2). Secondly, I will outline in how far the EU’s peculiar nature as a system of multi-level decision-making can be regarded as a core empirical challenge to the concepts of conventional FPA (Chapter 3). Drawing on these insights, I will conclude that different theoretical schemes ought to be applied to different issue areas of foreign policy-making in a more selective manner if the complex processes of EFP are to be fully understood (Chapter 4).

2 Explaining European Integration: Contending Approaches in IR Theory and Political Science

2.1 Neorealism and the Intergovernmental Perspective: National Governments as Central Actors in the Bargaining of International Outcomes

Political scientists who identify themselves with realist conceptions of world politics argue that nation-states continue to be the central actors in the international arena. According to this strand of thought, states seek to maximise their national security and maintain their sovereignty in an anarchic international environment. International relations can thus be described as a series of zero-sum games; formal cooperation is neither deemed necessary nor desired, since commitments of cooperative states can always be exploited by defecting governments (Wagner, 2003: 579-80). Neorealists have adapted this game-theoretic logic to analyse the limits of cooperation, stressing that states can engage in a cooperative sub-system,[5] but only if (1) this offers substantial gains which exceed the costs of integration; (2) a hegemon is pushing for it; or (3) there is a threat urging like-minded states to form a security alliance (Andreatta, 2005: 26-7).[6]

In integration theory, intergovernmentalism (Hix, 1999: 14-5) and rational institutionalism (Hall and Taylor, 1996: 942-6) represent the two most influential schools of thought corresponding to neorealist approaches in IR, with intergovernmentalism being the most prominent one. From this perspective, EFP is perceived as nothing more than the sum of member states’ foreign policies. The ‘logic of diversity’ (Wong, 2005: 146-9) is the main momentum of integration, implying that a cooperative system is very unlikely to develop in the realm of military and security relations (‘high politics’). If it does develop, it is usually regarded as merely transitory.

2.2 Neoliberalism and the Neofunctionalist Legacy: the Logic of Spillover Effects and Sequential Integration of Different Social Sectors

In contrast to neorealist scholars, proponents of liberal approaches within IR theory assert that nation-states are important, but not necessarily the most important actors in contemporary international relations. Rather than focusing on national security, modern states are supposed to maximise national welfare that is demanded by domestic interest groups and transnational ‘advocacy coalitions’ (Sabatier, 1988). Systemic pressures only play a minor role (Andreatta, 2005: 28-9). Economic power is a crucial element of national power (Hix, 1999: 352), and political integration can be used to exploit comparative advantages and prevent free-riding behaviour by other states (ibid.).

Among integration theorists, neofunctionalism has become a predominant paradigm which is commonly associated with (neo)liberal perspectives on international relations (Hix, 1999: 14-6). The logic of integration is not one of diversity, but one of functional spillovers (White, 1999: 50-1) between different sectors that roughly follow a ‘stop-and-go scheme’ (Jakobeit, 2002), thus creating a demand for cooperative solutions that ultimately extends from ‘low politics’ (economic and social relations) into the sphere of ‘high politics.’[7] Sequential integration occurs ‘incrementally and spontaneously’ (Andreatta, 2005: 22)—originating in the economy, but finally requiring trans-border solutions due to the external effects of national policies (Wagner, 2003: 591) and a common interest in addressing collective action dilemmas or external shocks.[8]

2.3 Constructivist Approaches: Transnational Discourses, Social Learning and the Impact of Europeanisation

It is frequently argued that constructivist approaches have been applied to the analysis of EFP because they offered an opportunity to overcome the ‘new dichotomy in the study of European integration’ (Hix, 1999: 15) that had been established by the intergovernmentalist and neofunctionalist camps. Generally speaking, such explanations highlight the significance of ideas, values and norms in the process of interest formation (Harnisch, 2003: 338). This ‘endogenisation’ of reality is a mechanism that sociological institutionalists (Hall and Taylor, 1996: 946-50) are especially keen to emphasise.

Europeanisation in EFP may therefore be defined as ‘the extent to which the foreign policies of member states are constantly being transformed by the process of operating within the EC/EU institutional context’ (White, 1999: 47). This process is assumed to work in both directions: from the supranational to the national level (‘national adaptation’[9] ) and the other way round (‘national projection’). Some scholars and practitioners also believe that social learning initiated by EPC paved the path towards a common set of distinctive ‘European’ values (Manners, 2002).[10] Legalisation as an explanatory concept (Smith, 2001) plays a crucial role here, with the EU’s acquis communautaire and acquis politique (Ginsberg, 1999: 436-7) as two remarkable representations of ‘soft power’ that are externalised during negotiations of enlargement.

3 Classical Foreign Policy Analysis and its Shortcomings: Challenges to the Conventional Study of Foreign Policy in an Emerging Context of Multi-level Governance

Why do we need to take a broader view if we are to successfully theorise EFP? A number of critics remind us of the fact that classical FPA is still rooted in an implicitly realist perspective (Wong, 2005: 140).[11] The ‘adaptability of traditional FPA’ (White, 1999: 46) to the study of the EU’s external relations and its expanding international responsibilities should therefore be examined carefully.

3.1 The EU as a Complex Political System sui generis: Why Traditional IR Theory Cannot Account for Many Developments in the ‘European Realm’

At the supranational level, the European Commission and its associated executive bodies have been shaping ‘Community foreign policy’ (White, 1999: 46-7) in ‘Pillar One’[12] for a long time. Conversely, what might be described as ‘Union foreign policy’ outside the sphere of economic relations is still characterised by a high degree of heterogeneity and intense nation-state bargaining, even after the introduction of CFSP in the Treaty of Maastricht.[13] However, it is largely undisputed that the ongoing process of ‘Brusselisation’ has also created ‘a burgeoning bureaucratic/diplomatic machinery established by the Commission’ (White, 1999: 51), complemented by a dense network of transnational actors in the Belgian capital. Consequently, the distinction between national lobbying and supranational decision-making has become increasingly difficult.

Secondly, at the national and international level, member states’ domestic policies and their interaction in the Council continue to be major factors in deciding which subjects come to the negotiating table (White, 1999: 47). Unanimity voting is applied in most sensitive areas of CFSP. At this level, intergovernmentalist approaches centred on the Rational Actor Model (Brown, 2005: 71-2) may provide fruitful insights. However, there are also a number of constructivist explanations which might be related to the national level of EFP, such as the examination of ‘foreign policy cultures’ (Harnisch, 2003: 331-2) or ‘cultural “hybridisation”’ (Wong, 2005: 138) between them.[14]

All in all, there has obviously been a shift from looking at the EU’s presence in world politics to examining the EU’s actual effectiveness in foreign policy-making. As a result, analysts keep asking how and where the interests of the key players are formed, and why the explanatory power of a given approach may vary from field to field.


[1] The EU’s potential as a demographic and economic ‘superpower’ has been underlined by many analysts. See, for example, Ginsberg (1999: 438): ‘When the EU acts as a unit in international politics, it carries the combined weight of 370 million Europeans and the world’s richest and most powerful economic and political bloc.’ The global power of the member states in world trade and development aid is discussed by Wagner (2003: 577), Varwick (2004: 222) and Andreatta (2005: 35).

[2] In this essay, I will use ‘International Relations’ (upper case) when referring to the academic discipline and ‘international relations’ (lower case) when referring to the actual activities of the EU, its member states and non-state actors which are directed towards their international environment.

[3] ‘Theoretical work on EFP has been meagre compared to work on the internal aspects of integration’ (Ginsberg, 1999: 432).

[4] These authors maintain that the state-centred methods of conventional FPA should not be applied to the EU at all—unless they are adapted in such a way as to acknowledge its institutional and procedural peculiarities (White, 1999: 39). See the discussion below (section 3.1) for further details.

[5] However, the ‘Coase Theorem’—a basic axiom in game theory—points out that collective solutions among several actors may also be attained through loose coordination if every actor pursues his own policies and regulations without interfering in other actors’ decisions (Scharpf, 1999: 72). Hence, many neorealists argue that there is actually no need for formalised international cooperation at all.

[6] Put another way, political integration from a neorealist viewpoint occurs whenever states can make strategic use of the functions provided by an overarching regime. Hix (1999: 351) illustrates this way of thinking by using a metaphor of the EU as a ‘vehicle’ for states whose interests happen to ‘coincide.’

[7] The neofunctionalist ‘chain of reasoning’ starts by acknowledging the advantages of creating a free- trade area in the context of intensified economic interdependence between different countries. Further steps include the formation of a customs union, a common market, an economic and monetary union and—eventually—a fully-fledged political union.

[8] The importance of external shocks as an impetus for economic and political integration in Europe— e.g. the collapse of the Bretton Woods regime in 1971/72, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980/81 or the end of the Cold War in 1989/90—has been emphasised on various occasions. See, for example, the arguments put forward by Ginsberg (1999: 435-6), Smith (2001: 89) or White (1999: 52; 2001: 72-4).

[9] The sole participation of national actors in EPC and CFSP, so these authors argue, has triggered processes of socialisation and identity (re)construction at the national level: ‘By empowering and involving domestic bureaucrats in the EFP process, EPC/CFSP helps create loyalties among national foreign policy-makers’ (Ginsberg, 1999: 443).

[10] For a discussion of different dimensions of power (absolute, relative and structural), see Brown (2005: 81-91). The EU’s resources of relative/structural power are described in Hill and Smith (2005b: 404).

[11] State-centric realism and its analytical simplifications are the main point of reference for most critics of conventional FPA. Yet, it should be noted that the exclusive emphasis placed on domestic actors in some liberal accounts does not seem to give the whole picture of EFP either (White, 1999: 38).

[12] In almost all ‘Pillar One’ policies— i.e., the Community policies executed within the EC framework—the Commission has the exclusive right of agenda-setting. This usually does not yet apply to ‘Pillar Two’ (foreign relations) and ‘Pillar Three’ (juridical/internal security) policies.

[13] Tonra (2003: 732-3) identifies three areas of progress in CFSP: ‘increased institutionalization’, a broadened and more formalised agenda, and a higher degree of flexibility in decision-making which has been made possible by the gradual introduction of qualified majority voting in a selected (but still very limited) number of thematic fields. Likewise, several authors suggest that international recognition of the EU as an important—albeit quite heterogeneous—actor has increased its scope for independent action in security politics. See, in particular, Bruter’s (1999: 185-95) description of how the EU’s international delegations have come to be regarded as ‘European embassies’ by many third states.

[14] To be sure, the regional (intra-state) level is an important level of analysis as well (Varwick, 2004: 202). However, as the EU’s regional policies embodied by the structural and cohesion funds mostly do not have a direct bearing on the conduct of its international relations, this level is not considered here.

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Theories of the Making of European Union Foreign Policy
London School of Economics  (Department of International Relations)
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Dipl.-Pol., MSc (IR) Jan-Henrik Petermann (Author), 2005, Theories of the Making of European Union Foreign Policy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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