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Foreign and Security Policy


The European Union has its own foreign and security policy, which has developed gradually over many years and which enables it to speak – and act – as one in world affairs.

Acting together as the EU, the 28 member countries have far greater weight and influence than if they act individually, following 28 different policies.

The EU's common foreign and security policy has been further strengthened by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which created the post of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. At the same time, it created a European Diplomatic Service – the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Peace and security

The role of the EU's foreign and security policy is to preserve peace and strengthen international security; to promote international cooperation; and to develop and consolidate democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

EU election monitors at a polling station in Sierra Leone © EU

EU election monitors in Sierra Leone, 2012. The EU promotes democracy & human rights worldwide

Diplomacy and partnership

The EU is a key player in international issues – from global warming to the conflict in the Middle East. The EU’s common foreign and security policy is based on diplomacy – backed where necessary by trade, aid and security and defence – to resolve conflicts and bring about international understanding. The Union is the largest donor of Development Aid Internationally and this leaves it in a unique position to reach out in cooperation with developing countries.

The sheer size of the 28-nation EU – in economic, trade and financial terms – makes it a major force in the world. It is the world’s biggest trader, with the world’s second currency, the euro. The EU plays an important role in global affairs – and its weight is growing as EU countries increasingly make collective foreign policy decisions.

The EU maintains partnerships with all the world's key players – including new ones – each with their own world views and interests. It seeks to ensure that its partnerships are based on mutual interests and benefits, in which both parties have rights as well as duties.

The EU holds regular summits with the United States, Japan, Canada, Russia, India and China. Its relations with these and other countries span many fields, including education, the environment, security and defence, crime and human rights dialogues.

Peacekeeping missions

The EU has sent peacekeeping missions to several of the world’s trouble spots. In August 2008, the EU helped broker a ceasefire between Georgia and Russia, deployed EU observers to monitor the situation (EU monitoring mission in Georgia) and provided humanitarian aid to people displaced by the fighting.

The EU also has a leading role in the Balkans, where it is funding assistance projects in seven countries to help them build stable societies. In Kosovo, the EU deployed a 1900-strong police and justice force (EULEX Kosovo) in December 2008 to help ensure law and order.

An officer from the EULEX Mission in Kosovo giving a leaflet to a man in a car © EU

Officer from EULEX Mission in Kosovo distributes info on EU role in rebuildng Western Balkans

The means to intervene

The EU has no standing army. Instead, under its common security and defence policy (CSDP), it relies on ad hoc forces contributed by EU countries for:

  • joint disarmament operations
  • humanitarian and rescue tasks
  • military advice and assistance
  • conflict prevention and peace-keeping
  • tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peace-making and post-conflict stabilisation.

All these tasks may contribute to the fight against terrorism, sometimes by supporting non-EU countries in combating terrorism on their soil.

EUPOL officers speaking to a child in Afghanistan © EU

In Afghanistan, the EU supports training for judiciary & police officers

Over the last decade, the EU has launched 23 civilian missions and military operations on 3 continents. These were in response to crises – post-tsunami peace building in Aceh, protecting refugees in Chad, fighting piracy off Somalia and the Horn of Africa. The EU's role as a security player is expanding.

Since January 2007, the EU has been able to undertake rapid-response operations with two concurrent 1500-strong single-battle groups and, if required, to launch both operations almost simultaneously. Deployment decisions are taken by national ministers from EU countries meeting in the Council of the EU.

Reaching out eastwards

As with Russia, the EU is moving to strengthen ties with Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. The August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, which ended in an EU-brokered ceasefire and the deployment of an EU monitoring mission in Georgia, raised concerns over the region’s stability. The EU offers considerable funding for these countries, as well as the prospect of free-trade agreements if they undertake political and economic reforms to strengthen democracy.

Closer ties: Mediterranean and Middle East

In the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, the EU re-launched its European neighbourhood policy to express its solidarity with those calling for democracy. Designed to strengthen the EU’s relations with its neighbours to the east and south, the policy offers political association, economic integration and increased mobility. The re-launch promised more EU support for those neighbours committed to political and economic reform, and more interaction with the people living in these neighbouring countries.

An EU-Tunisia Task Force is in place to coordinate European and international support intended to help Tunisia as it makes the transition to democracy and restarts its economy. A similar EU-Egypt Task Force was launched in November 2012.

The EU is providing support of a different kind to international efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. A two-state arrangement in which the Palestinian state lives side-by-side with Israel is the EU’s objective, and it is working with the UN, the US and Russia (together comprising the ‘Quartet’) to encourage both sides to reach an agreement.

The EU has an equally active role in Iran, where it is leading negotiations aimed at encouraging the country to scale back its nuclear programme.

Asia and Latin America

The EU is intensifying relations with regional groups, particularly in Asia and Latin America. With its fast-developing Asian partners, the EU has created ‘enhanced partnerships’ – agreements which balance the economic, political, social and cultural elements of the relationships.

EU members-in-waiting: the Balkans

Croatia became the 28th EU member in July 2013, whilst the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Montenegro and Serbia have been officially accepted as candidates for EU membership. Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina have applied.

Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia in 2008, but there is still no international agreement on its status. The EU is actively seeking a diplomatic solution by leading the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, while providing practical help.

Decision-making in EU foreign policy

The ultimate decision-making body in the European Union is the European Council, bringing together Heads of State and Government from the 28 member countries. The Council meets four times a year to define the principles and general guidelines of policy.

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton shaking hands with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon © EU

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton meets UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon - supporting peace through multilateral cooperation

The role of High Representative Catherine Ashton is to bring more coherence to the EU's foreign policies. Accordingly, she chairs the monthly meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council where the 28 EU Foreign Ministers meet. The High Representative also attends the European Council and reports on foreign affairs issues.

Most foreign and security policy decisions are taken by unanimity – all EU countries have to agree on a decision.

The role of the External Action Service (EEAS) is to support the role of the High Representative. It functions as the EU's diplomatic service, with a network of over 140 Delegations and Offices around the world responsible for promoting and protecting Europe's interests.

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