Is The EU A Declining Power?

Barry Gilheany considers the future of the European Union.

The necessity of posing and answering this question is given particular saliency by the scheduled departure of the UK from the European Union on 29th March 2019, an event that has become known in common parlance as “Brexit”, after the vote to leave the EU in the referendum held on 23rd June 2016 and the subsequent triggering of the exit mechanism from the EU, Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, by the UK parliament.

So, in order to approach the existential crisis facing the EU I discuss what sort of political entity the European Union is; what its external policy goals and objectives are, the centripetal and centrifugal influences that are exercised on it as an actor and how it has adapted to the challenges of the first decade and a half of the 21st century; particularly the security environment that emerged after the events of 9/11; the emergence of a multipolar world and the EU’s own legitimacy crises over the troubles in the Eurozone from 2010 and the growing skepticism towards the European project among electors in member states which was expressed so dramatically (and traumatically for supporters of the European project such as this author). I survey the successes and failures of the EU’s principal foreign policy instrument, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) framework and assess how EU foreign policy behaviour can be categorised within International Relations theory. I come to the tentative conclusion that as the EU is an unfinished project, a work in progress; it will have to choose between being a regional multilateral actor or seeking to develop cooperative arrangements with old powers such as the USA and new powers such as Russia, China and India. The EU is a power not so much in decline but in transition.

The European Union is best described as an unfinished federal quasi-state. It differs from all other regional organisations including the United Nations as it has a partially developed supranational character; the Union can, under some circumstances, arrive at decisions binding its member states against their will (Pelinka, 2011).

The EU has 28-member states (minus one after 29 March 2019) but has a balanced federal structure with no dominant “centre”; Brussels (contrary to the claims of many “Eurosceptics”) does not dominate in the same way that Paris dominated the Napoleonic Empire (Pelinka, p.23). The member states pool sovereignty but retain autonomy in crucial areas (e.g. the UK opt- out of the single currency). The EU now, and in its previous manifestations of the Common Market, EEC and European Community, is still primarily a trading body but the imperative towards political integration has always been present throughout the evolution of the Union.

In is in the realm of trade that the EU most deserves the appellation “power”. As a trade bloc, its share of world trade – approx. one-quarter- makes the Union the world’s largest trading federations. The euro (up until the crisis of 2010 to 2012) provided regional exchange stability and is the reserve currency for many countries including China. The EU has a population of 450 million and is surrounded by 500 million neighbours, both a potential market and labour pool. By 2007, the GDP of the wider EU member states had overtaken that of the USA (to about 12.5 billion Euros) making access to the EU market a lucrative prospect. EU development policy is, in terms of scope and budget, the largest and most comprehensive globally. The EU is acknowledged, after the Kyoto and Bali conferences, as the world’s leading player in environmental policy and in the battle against climate change. Finally, the EU benefits from the largest network of bilateral, multilateral and interregional agreements with proximate and distant partners. It is because of these capacities that some writes have sought to classify the EU as a “civilian power” (Telo, 2009).

Despite the functionalist dynamic behind the various stages of the evolution of the European project (e.g. French interests should include an interest in German prosperity, formation of the European Coal and Steel Community); political integration was the goal from the outset. The desire for political integration was borne out of the experiences of the 20th century’s two global wars which began in Europe and the very European experience of the Shoah/Holocaust. The fundamental antithesis of European integration was the evils of European nationalisms; the “defining other” of the European project is the Europe of the past. (Another earlier “defining other” was Soviet Communism). (Pelinka, p.24)

This determination to prevent any recurrence of Europe’s conflictual past and the Union’s supranational character has helped to frame the EU’s five foreign policy making objectives: the encouragement of regional co-operation and integration; the promotion of human rights; the promotion of democracy and good governance; the prevention of violent conflicts and the fight against international crime. These are laid down in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty on European Union (Smith, 2014).

The specific framework for EU foreign policy is the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) but it also encompasses other aspects of EU ‘external relations’ previously coming under the aegis of what were the ‘pillars’ of the European Community (EC) and Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) but now compose part of a supranational EU framework. In December 2003, the European Council agreed on a European Security Strategy (ESS) which can be interpreted as a response to the transatlantic rift over Iraq and US doctrines of preemptive attack. Its three core strategic objectives area: addressing security threats from terrorism, WMD proliferation, regional conflict, state failure and organized crime; enhancing security in the EU’s neighbourhood and creating an international order based on ‘effective multilateralism’ in the upholding of international law. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 brought together all of the above in its Objectives for the EU’s external action (Smith, pp.3-7).

Because member states still have the prerogative of pursuing their foreign policy interests separately, the tools and objectives are EU foreign policy-making are necessary limited to those which do not offend member state sensitivities or interests. For example, the EU has to respect the military neutrality of Ireland, Austria and Finland. Consequently, the Union is weakest in its military capabilities. There can be clashes between the EU institutions as the supranational European Commission and the Council of Ministers which is protective of the interests of member states, even though ‘horizontal coherence’ between EU frameworks has long been a treaty necessity (Smith, p.8).

The EU’s relative lack of military clout means that for many commentators the Union can exercise little influence. For the realist International Relations scholar Robert Kagan, a Europe that does not possess strong military capabilities and the readiness to use them will always have to rely on the USA as a guarantor of international stability and protector of common interests in what is still a markedly Hobbesian world. Intergovermentalist theorists argue that while international institutions can circumvent limits to cooperation, these institutions act to pursue member state interests and large states will not accept outcomes that counteract these interests. Others, such as Christopher Hill and William Wallace argue that there will never be an effective EU foreign policy until a distinctive European in identity emerges that is concretised in a European state and demos (Smith; pp.8-10).

However, as well as the leading environmental development aid roles alluded to previously, the EU has become, albeit incrementally, a larger diplomatic peace-making power on the world stage. The overstretch that the USA experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought home to it the impossibility of fulfilling the role of global policeman alone has created opportunities in the realm of global security (Pelinka, p.280)The tasks that the EU engages in through the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), an offspring of the benign post-1989 security climate for western democracies, are defined in the 1992 Western European Union (WEU) St Petersburg Declaration as humanitarian and rescue tasks, peace keeping and crisis management (Toje, 2010). The St Malo declaration in 1998 following a meeting between President Chirac and Prime Minister Blair stated that: “The European Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises …”. This declaration signified a landmark overturning of the long-standing UK dictum that no such capability could be permitted to exist outside NATO (Bretherton and Vogler, 2006). Could French President Macron’s recent call for the creation of a European army be an attempt to create just such “credible military forces.”

Under the ambit of St Malo and the Petersburg Declaration, the ESDP has conducted three EU Force military deployment operations in Macedonia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2003-4 and three police missions to these countries which have preceded or succeeded the military forces. Another mode of operation has provided technical missions to Georgia and Iraq to establish rule of law and criminal justice systems (Bretherton and Vogler; p, 204).

In terms of capabilities, the EU had in 2004 1,8 million military personnel under arms and although it does not strive to match the military hyper-power of the USA, it has sought, since the announcement of the Helsinki 60,000 strong force ‘headline goal’ in December 1999, to organize forces that could undertake the ‘Petersburg tasks’. Seven or more specialized battalion size ‘battle groups were to be available by 2007 which are earmarked specifically for deployment under a UN mandate. These steps were taken in accordance with the declaration by the European Council in 2003 that ‘Europe should be ready to share the responsibility for global security and in building a better world’. The Security Strategy drawn up in 2003 gives some guidance as to the nature of future active military tasks of the ESDP. However, the language of the ESDP is clouded (perhaps intentionally) in ambiguity as war fighting and global power protection are not the functions of the ESDP, but stabilisation and peace enforcement beyond Europe are Bretherton and Vogler: pp.208-9).

In accordance with EU commitment to multilateralism as the optimal way to conduct international relations, all ESDP military and police operations are performed under the auspices of the UN Security Council and includes regular contributors from countries outside the EU including Canada, Switzerland and Norway. The EU has considerable capacity in the response to complex, multi-faceted situations such as civilian crises that have followed military interventions in the Balkans and Afghanistan where it has used its expertise and adeptness and multilateral relationships to engage in extensive conflict prevention activities and to help in combating organized crime, drug and people trafficking and international terrorism (Bretherton and Vogler: pp.210 -12).

In seeking to ascertain if the EU is a declining power, I have focused on EU foreign policy making and security and defence capabilities; areas which are seen as markers of ‘hard power’. Although the EU can never aspire to (nor does it desire) compete with the military prowess of the USA (or an emergent superpower as China), it role as a trading bloc and growing prominence as a diplomatic and peacemaking force does mark it as a distinctive and influential actor in world politics and economics. The EU is an incipient, middle – range power which has to choose being a regional multilateral entity and the need for partnerships with old powers such as the US and the emergent BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) powers (Telo: .53) The EU is a response to and is a function of Europe’s unique historical experience (Toje: p.11) of the destructive effects of nationalism. Its security remit resides in the promotion of ethical values such protection of human rights, good governance, tackling of climate change and conflict resolution an is embedded in a vortex of multilateral arrangements which can bring these goals to fruition. Ultimately, the EU must develop these necessary structural capacities for acting in a globally responsible way. But these capacities can only develop in tandem with European political integration; a process which is neither stalled nor is reaching any degree of finality ((Pelinka: p.29). Thus, it is not succeeding in creating a European Demos or sense of shared political community (something I would argue exists neither in Northern Ireland or throughout the island of Ireland).

In conclusion, the EU is a continually maturing power not a declining power but its maturation process is being imperiled by the reemergence of populist nationalist demons in member states or in Michel Barnier’s words “a Farage in every member state”[1] ;(Victor Orban in Hungary, Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Five Star-Northern League coalition in Italy, the electoral strength of the Front National in France, Alternative Deutschland in Germany and Swedish Democrats in Sweden) plus, arguably, the shock impact of Brexit (and Peter Casey anyone?) These are the forces that the European project’s founders sought to “other”. The existential crisis that currently confronts the EU is a call to action for defenders of the post-1945 liberal, rules international order of which the EU is a pillar to restate and remake the European project for the 21st century, be it Europe de patries or Europe de peuples. In an age when the USA of Donald Trump is advancing remorselessly towards America First isolationism and unilateralism, the Cri de Coeur from pro-Europeans must be “Europe First!”[2]


Bretherton, C. and Vogler, J. (2006) The European Union as a Global Actor Second Edition Oxford: Routledge.

Pelinka, A. (2011) The European Union as an Alternative to the Nation-State. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. The End of the Nation-State Vol. 24 No.1/2 pp.21-30

Smith, K.E. (2014) European Union Foreign Policy in a Changing World Third Edition Cambridge: Polity.

Telo, M. (2009) The European Union: Division and Unity in European External Politics pp. 36-57 in Gamble, A. & Lane, D. The European Union and World Politics. Consensus and Division Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Toje, A. (2010) The European Union as a Small Power After the Post-Cold War.

[1] The Guardian 9th November 2018

[2] Martin Kelner, Guardian Comment and Opinion 9th November 2018 

➽ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.

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