Daily Archives: 8 February 2007

The Iraq War: the end of a Common European Foreign and Security Policy?

Battle of Trafalgar -

On 20 March 2003, a US-led multinational force – comprising 5 EU Members States (MS) – invaded Iraq, marking the end of a bitter dispute inside the European Union (EU) around the legality of such an attack, and the beginning of a protracted obituary for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Just days before, Chris Patten’s attempt to salvage the CFSP from the blows it had suffered at the hands the larger MS seemed hopeless at a time when most EU capitals appeared to have reverted to ‘firm national positions’ on matters of foreign and security policy. This was a far cry from the display of unity and solidarity that had characterised the initial European response to the events on 9/11. But while the behaviour of the MS in the run up to the war – and in particular the rift between the UK and France/Germany – undoubtedly represented a setback for the prospects of a more unified and coherent European voice in the international arena, did it also significantly invalidate the rationale that led to the creation of the CFSP? If it didn’t, we have reasons to believe that the CFSP will emerge strengthened (if somewhat altered) from this trial. If, however, the rationale behind the CFSP has truly suffered a fatal defeat, we need to assess whether removing the political objective of a common foreign and security policy would be realistic given the current structure of the EU and the nature of the challenges the MS face in a globalising world.

The rationale for a CFSP

Since 1970, MS had been pursuing a strategy of closer collaboration in matters of foreign policy within the framework of European political cooperation (EPC), a network of bureaucrats and diplomats from their Ministries of Foreign Affairs. Located outside the structures of the EC, EPC was able to flourish because of its informality and flexibility. Decisions were made by consensus on matters which were deemed too sensitive for the public domain, and which excluded security and defence, still firmly under the umbrella of NATO. With the number of exchanges and communiqués between ministries progressively increasing, the real impact of EPC became apparent with the institutionalization of those consultations and decision-making procedures that had come to characterise its workings. This was close to revolutionary in a policy area traditionally considered of ‘high’ ranking status. By the early 1990s, EPC had developed into a full-blown operating culture, ‘oriented toward consensus-building, problem-solving and the creation of common understandings, interests or reference points’ , which formed the basis for joint positions.

Yet, for those who supported closer political cooperation in foreign and security matters, recognition – which came ‘when EPC was accorded its own section … in the SEA’ – was far from satisfactory. ‘They wanted action, deeds instead of words’ . Their wishes became reality after the Fall of the Berlin Wall forced MS to rethink the political framework of Europe. Embedding foreign and security policy cooperation within the scope of the EU became a strategic move aimed at containing the threat of a reunited Germany. The Maastricht Treaty thus introduced a CFSP as the second (and strictly intergovernmental) pillar of a renamed European Union. Its objectives were: to safeguard the values and interests of the Union; to strengthen security and preserve peace internally and externally; and to promote international cooperation, democracy and the rule of law. It would do so by defining common positions, implementing joint actions and (after the Treaty of Amsterdam) delineating common strategies between MS.

The CFSP was never meant to be an instrument that would bind together – in the way the Single Market and the EMU were aiming to do – the Member States’ different foreign policies, a factor that created – as Christopher Hill pointed out – a significant gap between its true capabilities and the general expectations that surrounded its birth. The sensitivities of several MS on matters of security and defence, coupled with the ambivalence of the US over political integration in Europe outside the framework of NATO, meant the CFSP was never going to have a far-reaching vision. Instead, the CFSP built on the EPC to create a networked environment of ‘cooperative and consultative activities … with regular rounds of meetings at political and official level’ , predominantly between Foreign Ministry officials. This led to increasing levels of policy coordination between the MS in international settings such as the UN and a measurable marked convergence of common decisions, agreements, declarations and contacts with third countries .

The other main aspect of the CFSP was that of security and defence, an area that touched many sensitive nerves, especially of those neutral MS that recoiled at the idea of militarizing the EU. The Treaty of Amsterdam transferred competences for defence from the Western European Union to the EU, stating that the CFSP now covered ‘all questions relating to the security of the Union, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy’ . The meeting between Chirac and Blair in Saint-Malo, where they declared that ‘the 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’ , paved the way for the emergence of a common European security and defence policy (ESDP) under the CFSP. The other MS confirmed their intention that the EU ‘shall play its full role on the international stage… give the European Union the necessary means and capabilities to assume its responsibilities regarding a common European policy on security and defence’ . This was a significant departure from the idea of the EU as a ‘civilian power’, one that stemmed from the inability to address the Kosovo crisis, and from the recognition that soft power did not always achieve its objectives.

The Iraq War: the end of the affair?

‘The EU had been divided over the Iraq sanctions issue for quite some time and the divisions became deeper as the US put increasing pressure on Saddam Hussein’s regime’ . Unable to reach a consensus on the threat posed by Iraq, and on the appropriate response to it, MS split roughly into three camps, with pre-accession countries also vociferously expressing their views . Three explanations are usually given for the alleged failures of the CFSP after 9/11. The first one highlights the Member States’ desire to maintain their sovereignty in relation to foreign policy decisions; the second one focuses on the weak institutionalisation of supranational decision-making structures; and the third one is that ‘the EU’s behaviour as international actors is conditioned by Transatlantic relations’ , not so much in the sense of the ‘special relationship’ that some MS enjoy with Washington, but rather in the longstanding ambivalence of the US towards the EU.

While these factors certainly contributed towards the crisis, had they truly undermined the rationale for a CFSP, we would expect it to have been paralysed in its main responsibilities from 2003 onwards, since ‘in [its] handling serious political crises, especially those involving … conflict, the Union has rarely acted as one’ . Yet, since 2003 the EU has embarked on 14 conflict prevention and peacekeeping missions : ‘for the first time, the Union proactively engaged in security affairs, covering a variety of tasks that stretch[ed] from policing tasks to military intervention. The missions showed that the EU was capable of reacting to … humanitarian/security crises and to contribute to peace enforcement, reconstruction and stabilisation’ . Just like the CFSP did not come to a halt in security-related matters, it continued to exert considerable clout over foreign policy. ‘Despite the overwhelming impact of the 11 September events on public consciousness, the many important foreign policy issues which predated them have continued to occupy the EU and the MS’ : with regards to the ICC, the Kyoto Protocol, GM foods, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and so on, the EU has increasingly expressed its position in a unified manner. In this sense, the long-term rationale of policy coordination that underpinned the CFSP does not appear to have been destroyed by the Iraq debacle.

Removing the second pillar?

Having clarified that an obituary of the CFSP is premature, let us assume that the divisions over Iraq had created such an irreversible fracture within the Union that any form of common foreign and security policy would be forever condemned to demeaning, perhaps even counterproductive, tasks. Is it thinkable to remove it altogether from the EU’s set of political objectives? No, for two distinct reasons. First, it is hard to imagine how the challenges of globalisation could be addressed effectively by MS acting in an uncoordinated manner, without building on the already considerable set of instruments available to them. The interrelated challenges of terrorism, ‘refugee flows, drug production, narcotics trafficking, … international crime, health pandemics … and cross-border environmental disasters’ , increasingly at the heart of Member States’ concerns, can only be addressed effectively within the framework of multilateral coordinated arrangements. Many of these threats are multi-dimensional and are addressed by policies formulated under the first and third pillar, although they impact onto the second one. This of course raises ‘questions of policy coherence both at the state-Union level and with respect to institutional coherence within the Union’ , but it is unthinkable that these will be solved by removing the EU’s capabilities to shape a CFSP.

Secondly, the CFSP is just one of several external relations instruments of the European Union. The process of ‘enlargement, … the new strategic relationship with Russia, the Euromed/Barcelona process, … the network of other association and cooperation agreements, the Cotonou conventions, not to mention the EU’s role in multilateral trade negotiations … are also crucial to the EU’s role in the world and as a foreign policy actor’ , although they do not strictly fall under the remit of the CFSP. Of these, external trade policy is probably the most significant: ‘the EU’s powerful economic and trading positions are becoming all the more important as much of international relations become less focused on “traditional” political and military issues and more focused on economic issues and economic-related issues such as environmental protection and energy supplies’ . Indeed, if anything, this pictures suggests an enhanced – not a diminished – role for the CFSP at the heart of the future of the EU, where foreign policy objectives and security concerns of the MS are joined up in a set of coordinated policies.


The CFSP was never meant as an homogenization of the Member States’ foreign policies, and their different priorities were inevitably going to resurface in the face of the events that followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Yet, it would be hasty to dismiss the objective of a common European foreign and security policy as hopeless. While there have been some significant setbacks, especially in the representational areas of prestige and credibility (but not as significant as those suffered by the UN system), these do not appear to have invalidated the underpinning rationale and practical functioning of the CFSP, which continued to pursue its multilateral objectives in the face of the increasingly apparent failure of the US policy in the Middle East. Indeed, the rift within the EU is potentially less significant than the one that might have developed within the traditional unipolar structure of the ‘West’. In other words, the divergence between Atlanticists and Europeanists – far from causing the end of a common European foreign and security policy – might instead represent the ‘first phase of a disintegration that [will] culminate with the emergence of two main poles in the family of the Western World’ .

As Michael Smith points out, the formulation of foreign policy is not simply the product of instrumental rationality, but contingent of social interactions and discursive practices, which remain at the heart of the CFSP. Therefore, we can expect incremental levels of cooperation between MS in the shaping of their foreign policy objectives, especially given the socio-economic patterns of globalisation. However, there are two fundamental divergences between MS over basic principles in international relations : the use of force and Europe’s relationship with the US. Leaving the casus belli of Iraq, the positions of MS in the wake of the crisis appeared to cluster around ethical interpretations of foreign policy, with the UK-led group advocating a new right of intervention, and the Germany-led group supporting pacific methods of conflict resolution . These divergences need to be addressed within a reformed institutional framework, which reaches a compromise between the current intergovernmentalist structure of the CFSP and the need for more effective supranational decision-making mechanisms. In this sense, a greater blow than the Iraq War debacle was delivered to the CFSP by the rejection of the Constitution, which prevented – inter alia – the creation of the position of EU Foreign Minister. Behind this rejection lies the absence of a European public space in debates over foreign and security policy, something which ‘remains the greatest inhibitor of further subordination of sovereignty national traditions, and national expenditure to common policy’ . Creating this space should be one of the first priorities of those who wish to build a stronger and more effective European CFSP.



  • Nugent, Neill, The government and politics of the European Union (Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)
  • Nuttall, Simon, European Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press 2000).
  • Held, D. and McGrew, A., The Global Transformation Reader, Second Edition, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2003, Introduction, Part 1.

Articles in periodicals

  • Cameron, Fraser, European Perspectives: After Iraq, the EU Can Learn from its Disarray, European Affairs, Spring 2003
  • Coulon, Jocelyn (2003), How Unipolarism Died in Baghdad, European Foreign Affairs Review, 8: 537-541
  • Crowe, Brian (2003), A common European foreign policy after Iraq?, in International Affairs, 79, 3: 533-546
  • Deighton, Anne (2002), The European Security and Defence Policy, in Journal of Common Market Studies, 40, 4: 719–741 (November 2002);
  • Hill, Christopher (2004), Renationalizing or Regrouping? EU Foreign Policy Since 11 September 2001, in Journal of Common Market Studies 42, 1: 143-163 (March 2004)
  • Smith, Michael E. (2004), Institutionalization, Policy Adaptation and European Foreign Policy Cooperation, in European Journal of International Relations 10, 1: 95-136

Chapters in Books

  • William Wallace (2005) Foreign and Security Policy: The Painful Path from Shadow to Substance, in Helen Wallace, William Wallace and Mark Pollack, Policy-Making in the European Union (5th edition, OUP, 2005), chapter 17.

World Wide Web (WWW) Sites