The European Rescue of the National Interest

Atlantic Community blog 01.12-2009

Asle Toje & Barbara Kunz for the Atlantic Community: 01.12-2009.

EU members are uploading the idealistic elements of their foreign policies in order to free up resources to pursue national-interest driven objectives. Although EU members are eager to sign visionary declarations, they are not willing to match that enthusiasm in terms of spending. Amidst a global economic crisis, the national interest once more prevails.

2008 was supposed to be the year that the EU finally emerged as a global power. Ten years after the Saint Malo declaration had signalled the militarization of the EU, the stars seemed to be aligning: The Lisbon Treaty coming into force, the arrival of a new American president, a French EU presidency that had placed EU defence at the very top of its agenda.

The hope was to finally bring the EU and NATO into a joint security framework that would allow the asymmetric transatlantic connection to evolve into a two-pillar alliance. There was also hope that the new treaty would give the EU a workable decision making mechanism rather than the unworkable 27-state consensus that had left the EU with very much process and preciously few results.

It is often argued that the EU represents an aggregate national interest; that Member States do not only pool sovereignty but also priorities. The basic assumption underlying the common EU foreign policy as summarised in the Lisbon treaty reads: "The Union's competence in matters of common foreign and security policy shall cover all areas of foreign policy." Given the level of ambition, one would expect that the EU spends much time on the core national interests of its constituent members. It does not.

In practice the EU foreign policy has been value driven. The "normative power" of the EU is a true born child of liberal internationalism of the mild 1990s when it was assumed that the main purpose of foreign policy is the "greater good," as opposed to the "national interest." The goals of the EU, as expressed in its security strategy, are a rainbow of idealist causes from climate change to world inequality and intercultural dialogue.

The fundamental idea driving EU foreign policies is that the world would be better if it was more like the EU. The Union is an excellent example of "value rationality" in Max Weber's sense: Not the objectives of its actions determine its behaviour, but its Sendungsbewußtsein, its missionary zeal. The importance attached to values (however defined) has been testified to by the enthusiasm the EU presses them on states seeking EU membership.

In the world beyond, we now see that the liberal internationalist agenda is rapidly running out of steam with results not reflecting the efforts. There are a number of reasons for that, one being "idealist fatigue." The neoconservative movement in the US clearly also made many question idealism - be it left or right wing - as a sound basis for foreign policy. The prestige of realists was lifted by being the only group that spoke out en masse against the Iraq war.

Good intentions can be coupled with flawed assumptions or flawed implementations and lead to bad outcomes; just as much as the narrow self-interest, even egoistic motivations can bring forth positive social outcomes. Sometimes the presence of a multinational company is more effective in delivering European values than cadres of EU-sponsored monitors. And sometimes the dispensing of foreign aid and "dialogue" is a smokescreen for less noble economic and diplomatic motivations.

Klaus Dieter Wolf has argued that national governments use international cooperation to gain influence in the domestic political arena and to overcome internal opposition to their preferred policies. The thought is that highly developed democracies tend to constrain policymakers with a great number of checks and balances. Thus, policymakers can use intergovernmental cooperation as a means of escaping these restrictions.

There is evidence to suggest that the EU member states are now actively "uploading" the idealistic elements of their foreign policies such as development aid to the EU agenda. This helps them to free up national resources to pursue traditional national interest-driven objectives. In this sense, the EU could by serving as a reservoir for a foreign policy agenda that is seen as outdated.

Among the member states the willingness to sign off on visionary declarations has not been matched by a corresponding enthusiasm to actually pay for the altruistic policies. The trend owes also, no doubt, to a backlash in key countries from Turkey, to Russia and China tired of what they perceive as EU lecturing behaviour. The world beyond simply does not see the EU as an example they would want to emulate, as the Europeans like to think.

Amidst the global economic crisis and systemic shift towards multipolarity, EU member states are more concerned with national interests than with the promotion of values. Above all, this is testified to by the EU foreign policy, which is replete with the sort of uncommitted idealism that member states usually reserve for the UN General Assembly. While some call this" the re-nationalization of EU foreign policy," it may be better to think of it as - to paraphrase Alan Milward - a "European rescue of the national interest."