Smoke and Mirrors: The myth of a common EU foreign policy

Ross Matthewman explores the flaws in the EU’s response to Russian action in Crimea


Angry words, handwringing, special summits, and vague threats of intangible “consequences” if an undefined series of events were to take place…at some point, somewhere.  The European Union’s approach to foreign policy has never exactly been decisive and inspiring. And for all of their grand statements (“The future of Ukraine belongs with the EU” springs immediately to mind), the reality on the ground is pretty clear. Russia has annexed Crimea. Having withdrawn troops from Crimea, it is also clear that Kiev has no interest in fighting the Russians singlehandedly to get it back. So what now?

Well not a great deal in all honesty. Behind the scenes, talks will of course be going on and some soft pressure applied, and we will now be treated to a few rounds of tit for tat travel bans and asset freezes on a few individuals, before some more talks will probably take place. Talk of expulsion from the G8 is also in the air, and a new “Association Agreement” of political support has now been signed. Ultimately, all of this will achieve precisely nothing. Russia is occupying Crimea.

There are only two courses of action which will capture the attention of Moscow and force Putin to even contemplate giving up his prized Black Sea possession, and one of those involves NATO boots on the ground. Which just isn’t going to happen. So we are left with the alternative of full economic sanctions replicated across the European Union and North America. Considering the relative weakness of the Russian economy, and their significant reliance on the European market for both imports and exports, there can be little doubt that economic and trade sanctions would have a quite devastating impact on the Russian Federation.

So why haven’t these sanctions been agreed on and implemented yet? It is not as if Russia has been remotely secretive about its invasion of a neighbouring country, or if there is any doubt as to who is to blame for this whole affair. So why the inactivity?

Ultimately, it all comes down to the mirage of a European Union that shares the same foreign policy and outlook on the world. This view is often espoused by supranationalist ideologues to whom reality and history are minor annoyances in pursuit of their dream of a federal Europe. The idea that the 28 countries that currently comprise the European Union, with vastly differing histories, cultures, and economies, have a unified outlook on external affairs is naive at best, dangerously deluded at worst.

Reaching a consensus about Ukraine is going to be incredibly difficult. The Eastern European countries, who have very fresh memories of living under the yolk of the USSR, favour, naturally, a strong and immediate response to blatant Russian expansionism. But this is where the divisions arise. Germany has a strong trading relationship with Russia and has made it very clear that economic sanctions are a no-go (for fear of weakening its own economy) unless Russia “destabilises” the Ukraine further.

That seems to mean “invades the rest of the country”. As Germany is the paymaster general of the Eurozone, and Russia’s largest trading partner, any sanctions implemented without them would be completely pointless. Britain has indulged in some hearty sabre-rattling, from the safety of the House of Commons, and promised to do…well not a lot, really (for fear of upsetting the City). Other countries in the EU, who rely heavily on Russian energy, are also reluctant to back up fine words with anything of substance, and the United States, after years of retreat from the role of international policeman, is ill-prepared for once again grappling with their old Cold War foes.

In short, Ukraine has exposed as a myth the idea of unified European foreign policy. For all of the talk of solidarity, brotherhood, and a common European identity, when push comes to shove national self interest triumphs over all. The creation of a “High Representative for Foreign Affairs” can only be classed as a fantasy conjured up by federalists desperate to paper over the inconvenient truth that defence and foreign affairs remain in the hands of individual countries.

The EU’s eventual policy towards Russia and Ukraine will inevitably be the lowest common denominator. A vast compromise that is acceptable to all 28 EU members. They may even get around to sanctions, eventually. But every day that passes without appropriate action weakens the credibility of the EU in the eyes of others. In the world of foreign affairs, it is imperative to back up words and promises with action. Considering the divisions, the EU should now be aware that, perhaps, it promised too much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

How information circulates in the EU bubbleLearn More