Europe needs a powerful voice in the world

The European Commission should take a lead in formulating European foreign policy

The functions of the High Representative on Foreign Policy should be taken over by a Vice-President of the European Commission

Member states should be allowed the right of “constructive abstention” from European foreign and defence policies


1. The European Union is a unique and pioneering international system. It has a mixture of intergovernmental and supranational features, set up after the second world war to establish a shared democracy amongst the countries of Europe. This was to replace the secret diplomacy that had failed so dramatically in the recent past.

2. As time has passed since then, the EU has acquired new powers and attracted new member states, and the diplomatic methods of decision-making (secrecy, unanimity) have slowly been replaced by democratic ones (openness, majority voting). It now needs to go further towards becoming a parliamentary democracy with a legitimate and effective means of taking and implementing decisions.

3. This paper outlines how to give Europe a consistent and effective voice in the world.

4. Federal Union, on whose behalf this paper has been prepared, was founded in 1938 and campaigns for federalism for the UK, Europe and the world. It believes that democracy and the rule of law should apply to states as well as within them.

Europe needs a voice in the world

5. The chaos of the European response to the crisis in Iraq has helped nobody except Saddam Hussein. Some countries have prioritised the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, others have emphasised the centrality of global decision-making processes. The result has been to move towards neither of these objectives. The countries of Europe have been unable to make any meaningful contribution to the military pressure intended to induce Iraq to disarm. And the United Nations has found itself marginalised in the response to the crisis.

6. Whatever criticisms one might make of United States policy, the failure of Europe to bring any influence to bear must not be ignored. The European interest in this issue has not been expressed.

7. Perhaps worse, each European country has reacted to proposals from the United States not on a consideration of the implications of those proposals for Iraq but on the consequences of any decision for its future relations with the United States. This is a bad way of making policy; it is not even a good way of gathering support for the Americans.

8. The argument for a European foreign policy therefore does not depend on any particular view of the proposals the Americans have made. However, if one also concludes that the American approach to this crisis does not necessarily represent the best interests of Europe, the argument for a common foreign policy becomes stronger still.

The European Commission should lead European foreign policy

9. When the European Coal and Steel Community was first established, it was based around a High Authority, an independent executive charged with allegiance to the common European interest rather than individual national interests. This is a model that has worked well: the most successful policies of the European Union have been those which have been led by the European Commission.

10. The European Commission should therefore take over a lead role in formulating foreign policy. It is already responsible for trade policy and development policy, for example, and its capacity should be built up so that other aspects of foreign policy can be sensibly integrated into this framework.

11. The creation of the post of High Representative for Foreign Policy was an important step in the development of a European foreign policy. However, the functions of that post can now be transferred to a Vice-President of the European Commission. There is no high representative for fisheries policy or trade policy, for example, because these are core functions of the European Commission. The same should become true of foreign policy.

The role of member states will not disappear

12. The foregoing does not imply that the role of member states in making foreign policy will disappear. Far from it.

13. First, the appointment of Vice-President of the Commission responsible for foreign affairs will still depend on the approval of the member states. The difference from the present position is that the European Parliament will also have a say in a way it does not have at present.

14. Secondly, policy positions adopted by the European Union will require the approval of the Foreign Affairs Council representing the national governments. The opinions of the foreign ministers of the member states will still be pivotal. Voting in the Foreign Affairs Council should be by double majority (a majority of member states representing a majority of the population).

15. Thirdly, we need to recognise that the European Union’s member states are independent countries with proud individual histories of their own. This means that they will continue to maintain their own relations with countries around the world, influencing and supporting the positions of the European Union as they do so.

16. Finally, it is not reasonable or realistic to suppose that every policy will be supported by every member state. However, Europe needs to speak with a single voice in the world rather than with conflicting voices. We need a mechanism to accommodate this.

17. The principle of “constructive abstention” means that member states that disagreed with a policy would not be obliged to follow it, where this would not undermine its effectiveness, although they would not be allowed to oppose it. For example, this might apply to expressions of opinion on foreign policy issues or – more importantly – to participation in military action. The principle followed by some European countries of neutrality is therefore protected: neutrality means having no opinion on an issue, not having a contrary opinion.


18. Europe needs a united voice in the world, both to articulate and protect the distinctive European interest and to enable individual European countries to express their own views on foreign policy issues.

19. The European Commission is the institution that should lead the development of this foreign policy. However, the role of the individual member states in the foreign policy arena will not disappear.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top