European Foreign Policy Information Centre

Over the past sixty years, the evolution of the European Union as an 'international actor' has been striking. The European Community of the 1950s and 1960s had some relations with third countries, namely former European colonies, and was beginning to assert a common stance in international trade negotiations. The European Union of the early 21st century conducts economic and political relations with virtually every country on earth, is a major player in international trade negotiations, is one of the world's most generous aid donors, and proclaims its pursuit of a common foreign, security and defence policy. Yet there are also serious obstacles to the formation of efficient and effective policies towards the rest of the world: notably, the views of the 27 EU member states have to be molded into a coherent EU position.

The entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty raised expectations that the EU will be better equipped to formulate and implement common foreign policies commensurate with the EU's economic strengths. This is because the Lisbon Treaty altered the institutional set-up for foreign policy-making within the EU.

The EU forms part of a complex 'foreign policy system', composed of the European Union as well as the member states' foreign policies (which both affect, and are affected by, the EU). The EU itself is made up of two 'pillars', each with different decision-making rules and institutions: the European Community (the 'first pillar', which now includes Justice and Home Affairs) and the Common Foreign, Security and Defence Policy (the 'second pillar').  These separate policy-making frameworks lead to  problems of consistency and coordination. The Lisbon Treaty attempted to solve some of these problems, by creating a European External Action Service and a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. These new institutions are meant to 'straddle' the separate policy-making frameworks, and thus presumably lead to more consistent, efficient and effective foreign policies.

The relationship between institutions and policies, however, is not clear-cut. To what extent does the development of institutions lead to a stronger EU role in the world? Or do other factors matter more?  For the last forty years, the member states have continuously developed mechanisms and institutions for conducting external relations. But at the same time, they have sought to retain control over the process, and jealously guard their own autonomy in the sphere of foreign policy. This tension, between the drive to act collectively on the world stage and the desire to retain national autonomy, has shaped the institutions developed in the external relations field, as well as the outcomes produced by those institutions. There is thus a complex interplay between institutions, member state preferences and interests, and outcomes.

EFPU has compiled a few study aids to help foster an understanding of European foreign policy:

Chronology of the development of EU foreign policy institutions [PDF] (as of 01/2017)

Chronology of the development of EU foreign policies [PDF]  (as of 01/2017)

List of EU civilian and military missions [PDF] (as of 01/2017)

Additional information on European foreign policy can be found through these links:

Official EU websites:

Council of the European Union

Website of the EU External Action Service

Oher useful websites:

CLEER News Service (weekly updates about EU external actions)

European Council of Foreign Relations

The European Union Institute for Security Studies

Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels

Centre for European Reform, London

European Centre for Development Policy Management (Maastricht, Netherlands)


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