The cases of Kosovo and Ukraine suggest a fragmented EU foreign policy

Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré |

In the last decade, the EU’s foreign policy practices have grown increasingly complex. For instance, despite the centralisation envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty, informal groups of member states shaped the Union’s policy on Kosovo and Ukraine.

Former and current EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini and Josep Borrell. Photo: NTB Scanpix/AP/Francisco Seco

Ten years after its ratification, some believe that the Lisbon Treaty failed to strengthen the EU activities in international politics. Others see the multiple crises the EU has faced as an opportunity to revise the Treaty, so the EU can live up to its ambitions on the international arena.

In principle, the Lisbon Treaty should have rationalized the EU’s institutional functioning, and thus increased the effectiveness of the EU external activities. The new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and especially the creation of the European External Action Service, should have ensured consistency in EU foreign policy both within and outside the EU institutional framework.

Still, many believe that the EU foreign policy is marred by a ‘leadership paradox’. Added to this, many dimensions of the crises the EU has faced after the Lisbon Treaty relate to the foreign policy sector. How is this possible?

EU Foreign Policy Governance Post-Lisbon

It might be too early to reach a final, encompassing balance of EU foreign policy post-Lisbon. In the meantime, however, given the qualifying institutional features of the High Representative as both Vice President of the European Commission and chair of the Foreign Affairs Council, an examination of this actor can offer insights into the institutional practices underpinning this policy domain.

What seems clear is that such practices do not reflect the intergovernmental-supranational divide formally envisaged in the Lisbon Treaty. Over the past decade, in fact, member states often engaged in patterns of interaction that went beyond such divide.

In particular, the Lisbon Treaty’s implementation seems to have triggered horizontal, informal dynamics of cooperation among member states. Some of these dynamics occurred within the EU institutional system, particularly in the intergovernmental forums. On these occasions, member states integrated their efforts without necessarily devolving discretionary power to supranational bodies, such as the European Commission. Hence, the label ‘new intergovernmentalism’.

Under certain circumstances, however, member states also engaged in informal, differentiated integration outside the treaty framework. EU foreign policy toward the Eastern neighbourhood can provide crucial insights into these dynamics.

In my recently published article, I demonstrate that this is especially so for the cases of Kosovo and Ukraine.

The case of Kosovo

The occurrence of informal differentiated integration has characterized the EU foreign policy towards Kosovo – and the Western Balkans. Ever since the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, France, Germany, Italy and the UK – alongside the US – coordinated their efforts within an international contact group: the Quint.

While doing so, they essentially shaped the EU approach to Kosovo and the Western Balkans. The members of the Quint have been at the forefront of the Union’s policies on Kosovo in the post-Lisbon era as well.

Simultaneously, German Chancellor Angela Merkel initiated the Berlin Process in 2014 – one of the most prominent informal groups in the post-Lisbon era. The Process involves a small number of member states – Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and the UK – the Western Balkans countries aspiring to EU membership, and EU representatives.

Indeed, the European Council pre-eminence over the High Representative in decision-making processes has characterized EU foreign policy on Kosovo in the post-Lisbon era. This notwithstanding, when member states believed in the need to devise a collective effort, the High Representative could significantly influence EU foreign policy, as it happened during Catherine Ashton’s mandate and the EU-brokered dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. On these occasions, informal groups of member states participating in the Quint and in the Berlin Process, contributed to EU efforts in coordination with EU institutions.

Still, when consensus among member states was not an option, the European Council took the lead. It is against this backdrop that the above-mentioned informal groups of member states frequently determined EU approach to Kosovo. For instance, during the suspension of the EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans, Germany prevented the Kosovo–Serbia talks from collapsing through the Berlin Process.

The case of Ukraine

Informal differentiated integration characterized EU foreign policy towards Ukraine as well. The occurrence of the Normandy Format is a clear example of an informal group steering EU approach, without receiving a formal mandate from EU institutions but remaining broadly anchored to the EU framework.

The Normandy Format is composed by the representatives of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. It was launched in July 2012, shortly after the outbreak of the Maidan protests and the Russian annexation of Crimea, to ensure a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Ukraine. Notably, it is within this format that France and Germany took the lead in the negotiation of the Minsk Process.

The Central East South Europe Gas Connectivity High Level Group (CESEC) offers another example of how member states integrate their efforts through the formation of ad hoc coalitions in coordination with EU institutions. In the energy domain, including in the Ukrainian policy dossier, the Commission generally conducted its activities in cooperation with an informal group of member states. In February 2015, the Commission decided to establish CESEC alongside Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia.

The Ukrainian case too shows that the formation of a consensus among member states’ representatives within the European Council is a necessary – albeit not sufficient – condition for the High Representative to influence EU foreign policy. When such consensus existed, the High Representative could benefit from the support of informal groups of member states.

However, when Ashton and Mogherini did not benefit from a consensus among member states on the general approach to adopt, they were unable to act as instigators and enforcers of EU foreign policy. Under these circumstances, as the negotiation of Minsk Process shows, informal groups steered EU response to the Ukrainian crisis instead.

The EU at a crossroad

All this considered, the EU finds itself at a crossroad. The occurrence of informal groupings within EU foreign policy on Kosovo and Ukraine reflect the extent of informal differentiated integration in EU foreign policy governance, despite the centralisation envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty.

Indeed, informal groups steering EU foreign policy might serve short-term purposes, and provide a response to conflicts and crises while the EU intergovernmental forums are deadlocked. Yet these distinctive patterns of interaction point towards a fragmentation of the EU foreign policy post-Lisbon.

By doings so, they inevitably put the spotlight on the urgent need to reform EU governance, especially in the foreign policy domain.