A European Foreign Policy Union?

By Joris Voorhoeve, Professor Emeritus International Organizations, Former Cabinet Minister of The Netherlands


As in the past, the 21st century will be ruled by the strongest political actors, which now are: China, the US, India, Russia and a few large middle powers. Separate West-European states, even Germany, are small in comparison to the superpowers. The interests and values of many European states are similar to each other, but their division and the recurrence of nationalism keeps the European Union weak. The EU is a union but is only a strong power in the world’s commercial matters.

The values and wealth of EU states could be sources of political influence, especially if these states acted together. But the common foreign and security policy of the EU does not reach much further than declarations. Most EU states are NATO members and rely on North America to protect them. All have a strained relationship with Russia.

The present leadership of Russia tries to divide and weaken democracies in peacetime by hybrid war measures. While Russia has a small economy, it builds a formidable military force, armed with very modern weapons of mass destruction. Why? There is no indication that any EU or NATO member intends to attack Russia. The EU is militarily very weak, and NATO will never agree on any aggressive action towards Russia. NATO states can only agree on specific defensive measures in case any of them would be under the threat of attack  by Russia. Russia is intervening covertly in Ukraine, has annexed the Crimea, and may have further plans. The EU is presently not able to counterbalance Russia’s military power on its own and protect itself from possible blackmail with nuclear weapons in serious conflicts with Russia.

The present EU is also not capable to form an effective joint policy to deal with a very different question: mass migration from Africa and the Middle East. The union is too divided, counts a number of illiberal democracies and nationalistic states, and has several members that are financially rather weak.  Usually it takes the EU much time to take decisions; often these are soft, half-way, confused or fake policies that do not bring effective solutions. The EU is too divided internally.

A small number of Northwestern European states could try to form a foreign and security policy which the EU of 28 cannot.  A European common policy could be led by France, which is financially weak; Britain, which is confused over Brexit, and Germany, which is militarily weak and does not want to lead. The committee structure of the EU and the Lisbon Treaty on which the EU is based, leave little room for swift and decisive action.

Recently, France and Germany concluded the Aachen Treaty to “deepen their cooperation in foreign policy and internal and external defense.” They promised each other “assistance by all means at their disposal, including armed forces, in case of aggression against their territory.” A Franco-German Defense and Security Council will be established as the political body directing this. The aim is to build a “common military culture” that “contributes to the creation of a European army.”

This may also serve the interests of the smaller states around them: particularly the Benelux states, the Scandinavians and Baltics in the North, and Austria. Some of them might want to consider becoming a partner to an improved, broadened Aachen Treaty. It is important to keep foreign and security cooperation on the basis of state governments and not get entangled in the complexities of the European Union. It might be considered to bring some multilateral defense components which already exist between European countries under an adapted Aachen Treaty, such as the German-Dutch Army, the Benelux Navy, the Eurocorps and other arrangements. Step by step, one could build a structure which is somewhat reminiscent of the aborted  European Defense Union of the 1950s, or General de Gaulle’s proposal for a foreign policy union, for which the “Fouchet” negotiations of the early 1960s tried to lay the groundwork, or the West European Union based on the Treaty of Brussels in 1948, which went into winter sleep when it was absorbed in the European Union. The pitfalls of these forerunners might be avoided this time. In any case, there is an opportunity for The Netherlands to ponder a possible role as small but useful multilateral broker.