Written by Josue Nuss-Schildknecht


The European Union (EU) is at a tipping point in the history of its foreign policy. The Covid-19 and the Russo-Ukrainian war have indeed fundamentally disrupted the classical European approach to international affairs and the growing consciousness of the Union’s role and place in the international order needs to be fundamentally redefined (Dworkin, 2021). 

At the dawn of an ever-growing multipolar order, the EU should thus first and foremost rethink the very basis of its foreign affairs principles (Zielonka, 2023) if it wants to reestablish itself as a playmaker in international politics. And, whereas the European Union’s foreign policy remains utterly complex to handle thanks to members’ divergent interests (Drea, 2023), there is undeniably a myriad of possibilities for the EU to retrieve its international status. 


To enhance its influence worldwide and advance its interests, the EU should embrace a more assertive foreign policy. First, by adopting a more pragmatic approach to international affairs. Then, by enlarging its international policy and avoiding decoupling from international organisations. Finally, by nurturing the ideal of the EU as a community whose foreign policy concerns are equally decisive and crucial for its own maturation.  

Realpolitik is an analytical framework — not an expletive 

European Union members have divergent approaches when it comes to foreign policy, where individualistically they put their self-interests in their sights. This was shown by German chancellor Olaf Scholz on a trip to China in early November 2022. His decision to take this trip was met with a hail of criticism from his European partners and by his own government (Benner, 2022). The critics focused on the conflicting interests of Germany with the rest of the Union members; marking stark unilateralism and actions indicating a disregard for the Union. However, as strange as it may seem, the arguments given against the German-China high-level talks were misleading and omitted the focal point: to consider that Germany has long championed economic diplomacy in lieu of political partnerships (Zhang, 2022). 

For decades, Germany has proven that it has a unique approach that puts pragmatism at the heart of its foreign policy and has been successful on many occasions (Walt, 2022), seeking prosperity and security by its own means. Ceding when necessary (Dempsey, 2023), by accepting to send the long-awaited tanks to Ukraine, or defending properly its economic interests against protectionist backlash (Płóciennik, 2022), or by adopting a pioneering and innovative stance (Hagebölling, 2022) on international affairs. In this regard, Germany’s shift in both its domestic and foreign policies, notably marked by an increase in defence spending (Kefferpütz, 2023), would undoubtedly fortify this leading position.

John Bew in his riveting analysis of international relations political thought (Bew, 2018), highlighted that the concept of a pragmatic approach to external powers, labelled as “Realpolitik” — a synonym of a cynical approach to foreign policy for many — actually lies at the heart of Europe’s tradition (Janning, 2015). While assuming the return of assertiveness in the field of the EU external relations, adhering to this German model could disrupt the European geopolitical status quo (Krpata, 2022), this renewed pragmatic attitude would ease achieving two objectives: first, it would give more space to the EU to develop its own strategy (Lehne, 2022), by disentangling themselves from the “grip” (Clancy, 2023) of the United States whose diplomatic interests could be damaging to the Union (Kleimann et al., 2023) — i.e. refusing to side automatically with the former and fostering its own self-determined diplomatic strategy. Second, a realist viewpoint of international relations that values rational policies against abstract and elusive aims, would conjure up the counterfeited reputation that the EU has acquired for being a hypocritical institution (Leigh, 2023). The project is not to sweep values under the carpet, but to allow the Union to focus on restructuring its discourse on core principles and fact-based modus operandi, and to streamline the overwhelming role of ethics in its foreign policy making (Frischhut, 2015) and give room for extensive consideration on elaborating legal instruments (Cardwell, 2015). 

Furthermore, pragmatism could also serve as an analytical yardstick in the field of soft power. European influence in the world remains of utmost importance because of its historical roots in transforming spheres of life: Industrialization, Democracy and Free Market Systems — all of which paved the pathway to the modern world. But the Union should remain alert of the tremendous task it is to establish a coherent foreign policy (Borrell, 2022), and be aware of its own intrinsic limits (Alcaro, 2021). Second of all, the European Union could boost its worldwide political influence (Leonard, 2022), not by imposing its values through speeches (Bochert, 2022) but by demonstrating their efficiency. A show don’t tell approach could thus enhance and ultimately help the EU foreign policy. 

Going Global: The EU as an international driving force

European countries have long established themselves as spearheaders of free trade and promoters of a positive-sum economic globalisation (BMWK-Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, 2022). The EU, for its part, is continuously negotiating Free Trade Agreements with like-minded partners all over the world (NZ Foreign Affairs & Trade, 2022), and the outcomes provided by this far-reaching free trade strategy are indeed considerable (European Commission, 2022). Yet, even though the Union has been supportive of various development projects all over the world, it could further expand its international economic policies by relying on its overseas territories to take advantage of its already crucial partnership in the Caribbean, for instance (Delegation of the European Union to Haiti, 2022). Nonetheless, the current revived free-trade state-of-mind (European Council, Council of the European Union) and the enlargement of the Union with the new “Global Gateway” strategy, are definitely heading in the right direction and should be made top priority of the Union’s upcoming agenda. 

Equally, the EU has long spearheaded multilateralism and still promotes it at the present time (UN, 2023). However, it is significantly surprising that it did not take the opportunity to use the vacuum created by the Donald Trump presidency to assert itself as the defender and at the forefront of multilateralism, and to subsequently interact with supplementary international organisations worldwide. If the EU-ASEAN cooperation is not seen as developed as it should for many (Bomassi, 2022), further discussions with members of existing organisations, such as the OSCE, one of the most enlarged intergovernmental security organisations, is essential (Bush, 2021). Furthermore, if the Union wants to deepen and widen its international policy as prescribed by Josep Borrell, it should also be aware of the present-day competition it would face against the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) whose aims and methods could be appealing to many countries (Aslı Aydıntaşbaş et al., 2022). Cozying up hesitant powers like Turkey, who has long dithered between rallying the EU and turning its eyes eastward (Gaspers, Huotari, 2017), is nothing but highly ineffective. By contrast, advancing sustainable development based on the EU’s successful long-term achievements would be more attractive for these countries. 

Finally, as Europe’s understanding of the world is often distorted by its inability to acknowledge foreign values and political considerations taken into account in other countries’ foreign policy, as explained beforehand, the EU is also often unable to recognize how to exert its soft power in all these countries. European soft power is indeed at the brink of a lasting and sustainable reflection and development. The EU has long invested in the influence of its normative power and market power but has long waited to develop its recognized expertise in fields such as chemistry, engineering, medical advancements and to use them as a tool to expand its soft power and its model of development (EEAS, 2022). The EU should thus keep on fostering these initiatives. Moreover, the Union should also support its great metropolises in developing relations with other cities in the world — promoting modern city diplomacy — metropolises that could establish themselves as models of sustainable and democratic development (Moonen, 2019). In short, the EU should take into account its ability to use multilateralism, not only as a diplomatic method, but as a driving force of its foreign policy. 

Cultivating the European Union’s hive mind mentality

Last but not least, the EU should capitalise on its collective intelligence and think of itself as a “United States of Europe” for every thought and deed, as proposed long ago by notable politicians in the aftermath of the Second World War (Churchill, 1946). In terms of security, for instance, the EU could potentially create a Federal Agency of Intelligence at the EU level, to coordinate the numerous State agencies, as done by the Federal Government of the United States with the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Members of the EU are still largely dependent on British and US Intelligence services for evidence-based decisions (Gressel, 2022). And although intelligence agencies are considered key elements of each state’s sovereignty, enhancing cooperation and data sharing between national intelligence communities would actually be profitable for each member state, to tackle their very own security concerns (Seyfried, 2017). 

Additionally, the debate on which direction the EU should take between intergovernmentalism — close to a Confederacy of states with enhanced cooperation, and federalism where its members would merge into one political community with unified sovereignty — seems to be dividing each of its members and to be a key component of the EU’s dearth of a consistent foreign policy. Kissinger reminded us that European foreign policy has long been characterised by a “pluralistic” approach to international order (Kissinger, 2015). The possibility of the EU shaping today’s international order is dim but its ability to adapt and change to it, for Europe’s common good, is more than crucial. Luuk van Middelaar, formerly a member of the President of the European Council cabinet, showcased the growing pragmatism of the EU when facing both internal and external challenges. 

One point that should be stressed is that the EU is significantly strong, resilient and capable — more than one could have expected — eventually rejuvenating itself after each crisis, but ‘The excess of consensus in Brussels stifles European political life’ and it is perhaps, in the aftermath of great crises and in the age of upheaval that the EU will be able to improve drastically and to engage fully with a changing world (Middelaar, 2017). If one day you have the opportunity to visit the Luxembourg City Museum, you might be astonished by the apparent patriotism of the Luxembourgers on the one hand, the national narrative they traced and worshipped, and on the other hand, the place granted to the history of the European Union and its institutions based in Luxembourg City. Torn between the idea of becoming one and remaining plural, what the EU should become is polyphonic (Moser, 2015). That is, just like an orchestra, letting hundreds of sounds & voices be heard in a unique and harmonious symphony. 


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This article was submitted as part of the European Policy Prize (EPP) 2023

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