Skip to content

Why enlargement is the EU’s only successful foreign policy to date


The European Union is the first international organisation to attempt a common foreign policy, usually considered a domain of ‘high politics’ that lies solely with nation states. Given its somewhat problematic evolution over the past 40 years, from the establishment of the European Political Cooperation (EPC) in 1970 to the present-day European External Action Service (EEAS), lead by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, it has attracted much criticism for failing to live up to expectations and punching well below its weight. One such common criticism is that the only successful foreign policy of the EU has been its enlargement policy. Given the conspicuous absence of other major successful common foreign policies to date, I would agree with this statement. I shall look at why the enlargement policy has succeeded and then analyse why the EU has struggled to develop into a strong foreign policy actor beyond enlargement.

        In 2012 the Nobel Prize Committee awarded its Peace Prize to the EU, citing enlargement and its role in transforming ‘most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace’[1]. The EU’s policy of welcoming its neighbouring countries into the union, through using conditionality and the 1993 Copenhagen accession criteria as tools of soft power, is widely considered to be a success, for its role in promoting extended peace, stability, prosperity and democracy in the region, especially in the post-Soviet Union context. The fact that there are still applicant and candidate countries hoping to join the EU also attests to its ongoing attractiveness and its ability to indirectly influence state-building and peacebuilding outside of its official boundaries, through the European Neighbourhood Policy.

        However, it can be questioned whether EU enlargement actually is a true example of supranational community foreign policy, as defined by Ian Manners, or whether it is rather an intergovernmental ‘existential’ policy[2], given that it affects the essential composition of the EU itself and that decision-making on enlargement is by unanimity at the European Council and is increasingly politicised, based on member states’ own national interests, according to Ana E. Juncos and Nieves Pérez-Solórzano Borragán.

EU Enlargement foreign policy map

        Beyond enlargement however, the EU has often struggled to agree on common foreign policy and has very few examples of successfully implemented policies. Reasons for this include the member states’ frequent resistance to coordination, due to issues of sovereignty and conflicts of interest between national foreign ministries; weak foreign policy leadership in the EU institutions; the concurrent existence of NATO as an alternative established military alliance; and other states’ perception of the EU as a primarily civilian power based on tools of soft power and the size of its single market, as opposed to a true military power, given that it lacks any armed forces.

        While the EU is traditionally considered to be an effective actor in certain specific fields closely related to foreign policy, such as humanitarian aid policy and international environmental policy, it has however failed to act or even reach a united position in crucial conflict situations such as the Iraq War in 2003, the military intervention in Libya in 2011 or the ongoing situation regarding Russia’s interference in the Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. In the few scenarios where the EU has reached agreement among all members on a foreign policy, for example in applying sanctions against Iran in 2012 to curb its nuclear programme, it is clear that this policy is actually based on the EU’s economic power, rather than its influence as a strong global actor.

        In conclusion, beyond the very successful example of EU enlargement and neighbourhood policy, we see very little evidence of the EU as an effective common foreign policy actor. As long as the EU’s foreign policy is conducted at an intergovernmental level between leaders of member states and dealt with separately from other EU matters, national interests and conflicts will continue to prevail and prevent the EU from developing any truly successful foreign policy.


This short essay was written in October 2016 for a course in ‘Political Construction of Europe’, completed as part of the University of Groningen’s Master’s degree in Euroculture: European Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context.


Footnotes and sources:

[1] Graham Avery, “EU Expansion and Wider Europe,” in The European Union: How does it work?, eds. Daniel Kenealy, John Peterson, and Richard Corbett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 174.

[2] Ibid., 164.

What do you think? Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: