This article is a part of research activities of the EU Foreign Policy Research Group.

The European Union is unlike any other entity, a ‘trendsetter’ in the areas of economy, domestic politics and international affairs. Functioning as a full member of the international community, the EU emphasises its own way in relations with other countries based on a set of principles commonly referred to as ‘European values’. This foreign policy strategy has earned the EU a reputation as “a ‘civilian’, ‘soft’ and most recently, ‘normative’” power (Tocci, 2008) and has been visible in the international policies pursued by the EU since at least the 70s. The EU has not been entirely alone in following this path. The entire “Western world” takes pride in similar behaviour, at least on a nominal level. The strategy has been considered a successful one, with examples hereof including the EU’s expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. And although other Western countries, such as the USA, or Canada, appeared to endorse a similar policy for many years, we might now be facing the end of this approach.

On the 20th of January, in his inauguration speech, the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, stated explicitly that one of the key principles of his presidency will be “America first” (Trump, 2017). He explained further that this principle will put “the American worker and American families” in the spotlight and will guide future US policies concerning trade, taxes, immigration and foreign affairs. Although it is too early to anticipate what exactly these words mean, it is fairly safe to conclude that we are dealing with the comeback of realist US foreign policy. Former US President Barack Obama, commonly referred to as the “leader of the liberal world”, was often perceived as an idealist attempting to promote peace, protect human rights, and encourage democracy and open markets throughout the world. But now he has been replaced by a hawk who would rather conduct an aggressive foreign policy, focussed on the end result, and not caring about the means to get there, regardless of whether they are perceived as non-humanitarian, or illegal (for instance, during his campaign he admitted he believes that “torture works”) (Johnson, 2016). As the USA is a major global power, the policy it conducts significantly influences the rest of the world, not only in terms of its consequences, but also through the example it poses for other states. When combined with the commonly realist foreign policy of other major global actors, such as China and Russia, it may herald a global shift that could leave the EU alone in basing its foreign policy decisions on principles.

As we have seen in the past, Realpolitik can triumph over idealism. An interesting example is Africa, which is an important region from the perspective of the EU. For years, the EU has had a presence on the continent through generous humanitarian aid and investment, paired with a set of incentives aimed at building stable political institutions, improving the rule of law, and reducing human rights’ violations. At the same time, China has been pursuing an ambitious investment strategy, with an emphasis on infrastructural development in order to facilitate economic growth, rather than the development of political institutions and social spending (Kuo and Tang, 2016). This strategy has allowed China to develop strong trade ties to, and influence over, Africa (Romei, 2015). This change was made possible because, in addition to other factors, China has come to be regarded as a more favourable investor than the EU, as it does not demand any improvements in  the benefiting African states’ political or legal systems, which are often difficult to accept for the countries’ rulers. It has led to the diminished position of the EU and increased the importance of China, which is using a similar strategy on other continents, for instance in Latin America (Fumento, 2014). Considering that a similar code of conduct could now be followed by the USA, the EU may be pressured into adopting a more business-like approach, in order to reach its foreign policy goals.

A closer inspection, however, reveals that the EU may be already shifting to such a strategy. Telling, is the recent agreement with Turkey on the readmission of asylum-seekers, which was criticised by many experts and activists as a violation of human rights (Amnesty International, 2016), but was signed anyway to protect the EU’s borders from immigration. Another good example is the EU’s policy towards the Republic of Moldova, a subject of the European Neighbourhood Policy and one of the most advanced members of the Eastern Partnership (with lifted visas to the EU and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) in force). The country is struggling with massive corruption and a phenomenon that is commonly known as a ‘state capture’ by Vlad Plahotniuc, a shady oligarch maintaining a strong influence on business, politics, media and the legal system of the country (Socor, 2016). At the same time, Mr. Plahotniuc is the president of the Democratic Party of Moldova, which is a part of the ruling coalition in Parliament. The so-called “pro-European coalition”, which opposes the parties that pursue closer relations with Russia, enjoys strong support from the West, including from the EU. Do the EU’s officials not realise that the government they endorse is involved in activities that are contrary to European values? It is almost certain that they do, yet they choose to support it for geopolitical reasons, as the main alternative to the ruling coalition would be a pro-Russian one, which would be detrimental to the close cooperation the EU currently enjoys with Moldova.

These are only two of the examples that demonstrate that the EU is trying to adjust to its current situation, even if it means not fully adhering to its own principles. Is this a path worth following? It depends. In the aforementioned example of Moldova, it would appear not. Support for the ruling pro-European coalition is decreasing steadily among Moldovans, which also increases the growing distrust many have towards the EU. In the long-term, this strategy can result in losing both Moldova’s friendly government and the support of its people, who will view the EU as a distrustful entity. Although the general shift towards the realist approach may be the only option that is left as the EU’s leaders focus on combating the EU’s current challenges (which indeed are numerous) by any means necessary. Bearing in mind recent developments in the USA, the pressure on the EU to follow this path could be very strong in the future. Indeed, the normative policy of the EU could very well end up being the very first ‘victim’ of the upcoming rule of the Realpolitik.

Kinga is a recent MA graduate from the University of Warsaw, Poland in the field of European studies, with the specialisation in the EU foreign policy. Passionate about the region of Eastern Europe, she strives to expand her knowledge about it through research and travelling, as well as to improve her Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian languages. Her interests include EU foreign policy towards Russia, Ukraine and Republic of Moldova, and the domestic situation of these countries. She leads the EU Foreign Policy Research Group working in the framework of the EST.


  • Tocci N. (2008). The European Union as a normative foreign policy actor. Centre for European Policy Studies Working Document No. 281/January 2008 [online] Available at: https://www.ceps.eu/system/files/book/1590.pdf Accessed: 22 Jan. 2017.

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