Conducting EU foreign policy in times of crises and dissent


Anna Michalski & August Danielson

In the last decade, dissent among EU member states about the EU’s fundamental values has increased as a result of some national governments’ refusal to implement decisions and consent to previously agreed policy on issues related to human rights, rule of law and migration. This development has been particularly noticeable in the area of EU foreign and security policy, where member states’ foreign ministers seek to coordinate national positions in order to generate a more coherent European stance on foreign affairs. The inability of the EU to find common positions on human rights statements that criticize specific third countries, for instance China, primarily because of a fear of reduced foreign direct investments, has led to renewed calls to make use of Article 31(3) – the Lisbon Treaty’s so-called “passerelle clause”. The passerelle clause would allow the Council to take decisions on foreign policy issues by qualified majority voting (QMV) instead of unanimity, which is otherwise required. In 2018, the Commission proposed three policy areas in which QMV could be used: human rights, sanctions, and the launch of civilian missions in the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy. Yet, no decision has been reached so far, most likely because unanimity is required to activate the clause in the first place. Nevertheless, an increasing number of member state governments recognizes that the absence of QMV in EU foreign policy is a problem and a “hindrance” for the EU as a global actor. However, despite some embarrassing instances of discord, a mounting impatience among some national leaders, and the prospects of QMV being enacted still far away, the EU foreign policy continues to function overall. How can we explain this state of affairs?

The central role played by national representatives meeting in Brussels

The EU’s inability to reach consensus on common statements, witnessed not least in the UN’s Human Rights Council article 4 proceedings, heralds a tightening of the intergovernmental character of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The heightened level of dissension between member states should logically result in more deadlocks and make it more difficult to reach consensus. However, when we examined the current state of affairs in the EU’s Political and Security Committee (PSC) – an organ deemed to be the ‘linchpin’ of the EU foreign policy apparatus because of its position as the main preparatory body for the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) – this did not seem to be the case. On the contrary, the PSC ambassadors, national representatives who meet several times a week in Brussels to find agreement on specific points of EU foreign and security policy, reported that although certain member states attempted to prevent the EU from taking a common stance on certain issues, the overall atmosphere in the committee was imbued with a spirit of cooperation and sense of common purpose. We found these statements intriguing and, given their counter-intuitive character, something which necessitated further exploration, not least because of the PSC’s central role within the CFSP.

Socialization theory and how it can be developed

It is a well-known phenomenon in social psychology that individuals who work together for a long time in order to carry out a certain task or solve a particular problem develop a sense of togetherness and shared purpose. Researchers taking an interest in the workings of international organizations have found that the atmosphere among officials in transnational bureaucracies is no different. Officials who are exposed to the norms and rules of the organizational context in which they operate, may over time internalize and adopt these norms. This process is referred to as socialization. In International Relations research, socialization is often studied by investigating the coordination reflex (the willingness of officials to seek consensus), the problem-solving ethos, and a shift of identities among officials (from national to supranational) in international organizations along with various contextual conditions that make common decisions possible. Scholars have previously identified the frequency and intensity of interactions within a group, the relative autonomy of a representative vis-à-vis his or her capital, and the length of stay at an international organization among the conditions that are conducive to effective socialization. This means that the PSC, as an organ whose members meet frequently in long sessions, fulfils the tangible requirements for socialization to occur.

Still, socialization research grapples with the distinction of various forms of attachment to common norms and the sense of a shared purpose that the national representatives in organs such as the PSC experience. It is commonly believed that officials socialize to “community norms” without specifying whether these norms exist on the level of the group or the organization. We believe that this simplification becomes problematic when the EU’s constitutive norms are openly contested by some member states, while PSC representatives still adhere to the rules and norms of the PSC itself. For this reason, we make a distinction between procedural norms, i.e. explicit rules and implicit practices that structure appropriate behaviour in a group, and constitutive norms, which refer to the founding values and principles of an organization, which in the case of the EU are peace, democracy, the rule of law, international law and human rights – e.g. Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union.

Managing crises by socializing procedural norms

In our recent article, we show that the PSC has been able to uphold the rules of the game concerning consensus-seeking and problem-solving on the basis of the group’s procedural rules and practices, rather than the EU’s constitutive values. National representatives in the PSC repeatedly refer to procedural norms, such as credibility, trust, and being consistent with your member state’s position, as the main mechanisms for consensus seeking. Adherence to procedural norms has allowed the group to remain cohesive, while at the same time preventing dissenting national agendas from bringing the PSC’s work to a halt.

The power of socialization is clearly demonstrated also in the representatives’ self-conscious reflexion on their double-hatted role as ambassadors of their respective member states and as ambassadors of the EU (or, more precisely, the PSC) vis-a-vis their own capitals. This mutual recognition of each other’s roles as representatives of the national and the European interest is expressed in terms of a diplomat’s code of conduct uniting ‘everyone around the table, because around the table we deal only with people like us’.

Our findings illustrate how a strong social order can be upheld by keeping to the rules of the game, thus making it possible for the PSC to manage EU foreign and security policy despite a considerable variation in “norm substance” and the absence of QMV. Considering the ongoing debate on the demise of the “liberal international order”, a deeper understanding of these conditions is arguably crucial for ensuring the survival of multilateralism and a rules-based world order.



Anna Michalski

Anna Michalski is Associate Professor in Political Science at the Department of Government, Uppsala University and Associate Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. She is Chair for the Swedish Network for European Studies in Political Science (SNES). Her research interests include European foreign policy, EU-China relations, strategic partnerships and socialization in international organizations.



August Danielson

August Danielson is a PhD candidate at the Department of Government, Uppsala University. His research interests lie mainly in EU foreign and security policy, norm diffusion, comparative regionalism and constructivist IR theory.