The sheer size of the European Union in economic, trade and financial terms makes it a world player. The biggest trader and home to the world’s second currency, the EU also spends over 7 billion euro a year on aid to developing countries. Its trade and partnership agreements cover most countries and regions.
An economic powerhouse of nearly half a billion people, the European Union has an important role in global affairs – and its weight is growing as EU countries increasingly make foreign policy decisions as a bloc.
The EU is building relations with the republics of central Asia.
The EU holds regular summits with the United States, Japan, Canada and, more recently, Russia, India and China. EU relations with these and other countries cut across many fields, including education, the environment, crime and human rights.
The EU is committed to an effective and balanced partnership with the US, its biggest trade partner. In 2007, the two sides created the Transatlantic Economic Council, a political body that oversees efforts to strengthen economic ties. More recently the EU and the US concluded a plan for closer cooperation on crisis management and conflict prevention. The EU is also looking to work with the US on climate change and on improving the banking system in wake of the financial crisis.
The EU and Russia are working on a new agreement to govern their relations. The talks began in July 2008 but were suspended for several months after conflict between Russia and Georgia. The two sides are seeking more cooperation on all fronts, recognising their growing ties. In particular, the EU wants to work more closely with Russia to ensure energy supplies. Russia supplies a large share of Europe’s oil and gas but those flows have been repeatedly disrupted by disputes between Russia and transit countries, mainly Ukraine.
Election observers are deployed worldwide as part of the EU's support for human rights.
As with Russia, the EU is moving to strengthen ties with six other countries to the east: Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. The plan calls for increased funding for these countries and offers them the prospect of free-trade agreements if they undertake political and economic reforms. The countries that would benefit from this Eastern Partnership are transit countries for oil and gas to Europe. But all face important challenges to democracy and the rule of law. The EU is also concerned about stability in the region after the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, which ended in an EU-brokered ceasefire.
The EU launched the Union for the Mediterranean in July 2008 to forge closer ties with the Middle East and with its North African neighbours. Bringing together the 27 EU members and 16 other countries as diverse as Israel, Turkey and Syria, the new forum covers nearly 800m people. It will undertake joint projects to revitalise the Mediterranean, such as cleaning up pollution, renovating ports, improving shipping and developing solar energy. The Arab League and the Palestinian Authority will have representation.
Besides bilateral relations, the European Union 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 reflecting a better balance between the economic, political, social and cultural elements of their relations.
Seven countries in the Balkans region aspire to become EU members. Croatia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) have been officially accepted as candidates for EU membership. The EU considers five other western Balkan countries as potential candidates: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. 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 while providing practical help. Some 1 900 justice experts and police officers have been sent by the EU to help strengthen the rule of law.