From Spectator to Actor: Changing gear in EU foreign policy

By Urmas Paet
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Former Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet looks at why the EU so often is little more than a spectator in the new age of Great Power politics − and how it can up its game to become a significant actor.

The EU has long aspired to play a role in world affairs commensurate with its status as an economic power, an ambition embodied in the common foreign and security policy (CFSP), the European External Action Service and a host of programmes, policies and mechanisms.

In this call to action, Renew Europe MEP Urmas Paet, who was Estonian foreign minister from 2005-2014, forensically examines the EU’s too-often ineffective performance in the face of a wide range of foreign policy challenges. Lack of consensus among the member states, slow decision-making, strategic confusion, poor engagement with potential partners and an absence of real conviction are constant themes.

The inescapable conclusion is that in foreign policy the EU, while a source of ceaseless pronouncements and declarations, remains a minor player in a world where Great Power politics have reasserted themselves – and a world in which systemic challenges to the western democratic model, from Russia, China and others have become more powerful than when the CFSP was initiated. Mr Paet’s theme is to learn from the past, not dwell on it, and to grasp the nettle to achieve a unified and effective strategy before it is too late. Bold, but realistic and pragmatic ambition must replace vague and ill-defined aspirations which produce nothing.

As he writes ‘It is simply no longer enough to stride around the world offering hope, values and a cheque book. The EU and its member states need … to prioritise and strategise, speak with one voice and with common goals, and do so with clarity and consistency.’

Table of Contents

One: Cooperation, coherence, and conviction
This short introduction looks at the history of European foreign policy ambitions.

Two: Power and influence
From Covid to US isolationism, Beijing to Moscow, this chapter assesses the current challenges facing the EU as it seeks to exert stronger global influence.

Three: Reform and relevance
This chapter considers how structural weaknesses in the way the EU takes decisions on foreign and security policy prevent it becoming a more influential global power.

Four: Partnership and rivalry – the Chinese conundrum
The dilemma facing the EU as it tries to balance economic cooperation with Beijing with growing concerns over security and human rights.

Five: Selective engagement – the Russian dilemma
This chapter looks at the opportunities and risks in engagement with Russia and the threats posed to European unity by its member states’ unilateral engagement with Moscow.

Six: Rebuilding transatlantic trust
How can the EU and United States forge stronger relations after the damage caused during the Trump presidency?

Seven: Freezing conflict – the Arctic
Examining the EU’s strategy and presence in the High North, an area of increasing competition and tension between global powers.

Eight: Stabilising the neighbourhood
This chapter considers the effectiveness of the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy in terms of security, stability and reform of countries to its east and south, as well as in the Balkans.

Nine: Defending the Union – European peace and security
This chapter examines the development of EU common defence policy, relations with NATO, and the challenges of balancing national and shared European security.

Ten: New threats – winning the information war
How can the EU work with global partners to tackle new and emerging threats from disinformation and cyber warfare which risk European security?

Eleven: The road ahead
This concluding chapter ties together all the strands considered in the previous chapters and makes final recommendations for greater EU influence in global affairs.

About Urmas Paet

Urmas Paet served as Estonia’s foreign minister from 2005 to 2014. He has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2015, sitting as a member of the liberal Renew Europe group. Since 2019 he has been vice-president of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Product Details

Publication Date
25 Oct 2021
Page Count
198 x 129mm