Common European Foreign Policy in Shadow of Conflicting Interests

Peter Paul Rubens: The Four Philosophers (1611) // Public domain

The European Union often struggles with their external policy making, the EU wants a common, thus strong, and reliable external policy, but the member states always had a different point of view. But what can the European Union do without the will of the member states, what rights and obligations did it give to its own High Representative, a position often called the EU’s foreign minister? In my article, I want to focus on the powers and responsibilities of the High Representative and what needs to be done to strengthen their position inside the EU.

First, let’s review the history of the position, who and why, are they working for – and how did the EU limit the powers of this position.

The main tasks for the High Representative (High Rep), according to the eurlex, are “shapes and conducts the EU’s common foreign and security policy (CFSP), including its common security and defence policy; presides over the Foreign Affairs Council; heads the European Defence Agency; is one of the vice-presidents of the European Commission.”

It may appear at first that the incumbent High Rep is not a legislator. This means that they may have an opinion or a plan for the EU’s common foreign policy, but they don’t have the power to execute it. The powers defined by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union are mainly about counseling in economic development or imposing sanctions, expressing opinions about the Member States’ foreign policies, examining whether it’s against the Union’s Foreign policies or not, and building relationships with non-member countries.

In my opinion, the High Representative’s main responsibility is that they direct the Union’s common foreign and security policy. This means, with their proposals, they contribute to the formation of this policy and implement it in accordance with the authorization received from the Council. The same applies to the Common Security and Defense Policy.

Basically, they’re the executor of the Council, which is in the hands of the member states, which is one of the main problems in the view of the EU external policies because the Common Security and Defense Policy is a program by the institutes, not the member states, yet the member states determine its direction. Furthermore, the High Representative is one of the vice presidents of the Council.

High Representatives So Far, and Their Lessons

The first High Representative was a Spanish politician, Javier Solana, whose main task was to make the EU foreign policy clear and visible to everyone and with the visibility of the cases he can dictate the direction of the external actions. For example, in the Balkans he helped put an end to the Milosevic era, by mobilizing international aid. With his 37 visits in three years, the whole world found out what was going on in Serbia and put massive pressure on the leaders of the country.

Solana managed to reorganize the national media and helped negotiate a new and more peaceful constitution. The other important region in his career was the Middle East. He visited the region every month, the presence of the EU was a strong demand of the locals. In problematic situations, the EU took on an advisory role from the background with the presence of Solana.

The creation of the High Representative position brought more attention to these two areas. Visibility opened a continuous political channel for the EU’s work, so that it could be negotiated with the UN Security Council in one person. It made the relationship with the G8 closer, thereby increasing the global presence of the EU as well.

Catherine Ashton, the successor of Solana’s continued the formal High Representative’s work and during her tenure, and she spent more time in the Middle East than in any other region. Her main task was to strengthen the trade agreement with Israel, but for this the war against the Palestinians in the region had to be held back.

In addition, she visited the region mainly to assure that the EU funds were spent on what they were given for. One of her greatest merits is that in 2012 it was possible to bring the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to the same table, which led to the start of a 6-month negotiation process, at the end of which they managed to sign an official agreement to respect the existence of the other country.

The HR-VP position is often compared to the position of US Foreign Minister, but, at the same time, the High Representative doesn’t work according to a specific political vision and there is no president above him to tell him what the next step should be. Still, the larger member states try to lay down policies in front of the HR, which may create a contradiction. Ashton did not issue any statement on the Arab Spring until all member states agreed.

After Ashton, Federica Mogherini was the High Representative between 2014-2019. At the beginning of her term, she spoke a lot about the connection between the EU and the UN, and the EU and the USA. It’s very important to realize that the EU has now become a global organization, which means that it must take on more responsibility around the world. You can only achieve this if you finally start to utilize the EU’s inherent potential in the field of security construction.

As soon as the institutions and member states start working together on security, it’ll be much easier for the USA and other NATO allies to cooperate with the EU, thereby making the alliance stronger. With direct communication the member states could save money on military development.

If the member states purchase all military equipment together, they could ban duplicates and alternative weaponry, thereby they could save around 25-100 billion euros per year, according to Ashton’s calculations. Of course, that kind of cooperation requires a very high level of trust, which is very difficult if most of the member states approach external policy differently.

The current High Representative is Josep Borrell. During his term the world and the EU had to deal with COVID-19, a war in our neighborhood, and all the economic consequences of the aforementioned threats. However, the original plan was very different. In his term, the main aim was Africa and the European Green Deal, because to fight climate change, a very global problem, it’s not enough to think regionally.

Since we are in the middle of this term, and no one knows what the future holds for us and for the institutions of the EU, I’m not going to say that the original plan is in the bin, anything can happen in the following two years.

Based on Solana’s example, the High Representative needs to be seen so that everyone knows what they’re doing and plan to do, and for this, their duty is to connect with people through media, especially social media. If the citizens of the EU are familiar with the HR’s vision and agree with them, maybe the High Representative will have more legitimacy at the negotiating table. And because of the will of the people, the member states could consider a more integrated European Union, which is a big step towards a common foreign policy.

And for the common foreign policy, the High Representative should put more emphasis on their role in negotiating the new policy and help connect the member states like Mogherini did with the common military developments. In my opinion, that would be the first step towards common foreign policy, to create more co-dependence and trust. With more interconnectedness and trust, the EU institutions and member states could work more effectively in crises like the COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Role of the High Representative and Their Barriers

The position of the HR was created in 1999 with the appointment of Solana. His appointment came because the EU noticed a political shortcoming in its foreign policy. Solana’s task was not to take someone else’s responsibilities, but to bring coherence, visibility, and clarity to the EU’s foreign policy aspirations. At that time, it wasn’t clear whether this position is just the outstretched hand of the council, or with time it will develop some sovereignty and capacity to act.

When Solana took office, he immediately found himself in a difficult situation, as he was simultaneously pressured by the Council and the foreign ministers of the member states, and because he had no legal strength to work alone and create something new. He had to obey each one of them, which caused coordination problems. A good example of the increasing pressure is that Catherine Ashton only spoke in connection with the Arab Spring with the consent of the member states.

Furthermore, the Treaties don’t clarify whether the High Representative is a political position and a part of the government, or just a bureaucrat position, helping and executing the will of the Council.

Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré wrote the following about this problem: “The Foreign Affairs Council, chaired by the HR, deals exclusively with the external action of the EU. However, it is the rotating Presidency that chairs the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER) and the supporting working groups within that institution. As a consequence of this institutional set up, before a decision reaches the level of the Council, it may have already been strongly shaped by contingent national influences.”

I think with that kind of decision-making process it’s clear that the member states won’t give up their national interest for better working external policy, while the EU wants to move to a more coordinated and more effective common external policy. The High Representative has the power to put matters that are important to member states on the agenda, but ultimately it is not the HR’s decision, but mostly      the other member states’. That’s why the all-time High Representative must become a position with a vision, with a program.

To conclude,  I’d like to describe my vision for the role of a modern liberal and progressive High Representative, who seeks to strengthen the European Union and tries to create a stronger bond      among  member states. If the incumbent HR comes with problems to be solved, their number one priority must be winning over the public, because in the 21st century with the will of the public many things can happen. And if that doesn’t happen, raising awareness must still be a priority, because then the problem stays in the public consciousness.

So, the HR must build their own reputation before the public, the HR shouldn’t be seen as just another EU bureaucrat. As I mentioned at the beginning, Solana 37 visits to the Balkans can be a perfect example of raising awareness and by doing so, solving a problem.

Of course, the best case scenario for the position would be if the HR had more freedom to act, possibly a legislator role in smaller cases, but just like in many other EU affairs, there are some national interests that prevent further cooperation.


Solana, J. (2002) “Address by the EU High Representative for the CFSP to the External Action Working Group”.

Howorth, J. (2014) “Catherine Ashton’s Five-Year Term: A Difficult Assessment”, [in]: Les Cahiers Europeens de Sciences Po.

Mogherini, F. (2019) Taking Responsibility in a Dangerous World Europe’s Evolving Transatlantic Partnership, Institute for National Strategic Security, National Defense University.

International Crisis Group (2019) „Seven Priorities for the New EU High Representative”, Crisis Group.

Viceré Amadio, G.M. (2015) From 9/11 to Da’esh: What Role for the High Representative and the External Dimension of EU Counter-Terrorism Policies?, Istituto Affari Internazionali.

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Republikon Institute