Opinion & Analysis

Is differentiated cooperation the way forward for EU foreign policy?

EU foreign policy cooperation is typically based on unanimous decision-making. Yet as Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré and Monika Sus explain, the war in Ukraine has led to calls from some member states to adopt a more streamlined form of decision-making. Drawing on a new special issue, they examine whether differentiated cooperation might help to resolve this debate.

On 4 May this year, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain launched a Group of Friends on Qualified Majority Voting in EU Common Foreign and Security Policy. This group aims to revise EU decision-making in this policy area. Such a revision is highly controversial and likely to generate heated debates among EU leaders.

Foreign policy is one of the member states’ core state powers. As it is a key function of state sovereignty, member states have historically protected their decision-making competences in this domain. They have not only insisted on employing unanimity as a decision-making principle in the security and defence sector but have also frequently constrained the Union’s capacity-building in this field.

Now, however, Russia’s war in Ukraine has provided fertile ground for institutional revisions in the foreign policy domain. Indeed, the political situation requires the EU to act more quickly on foreign and security policy issues. At the same time, the war has led the EU to offer candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, to provide a European perspective to Georgia and to relaunch the enlargement process in the Western Balkans.

Against this backdrop, the members composing the new group claim that, as EU membership might expand, unanimity would lead to paralysis of the EU foreign policy decision-making system. Building on provisions enshrined in the Treaty on European Union, the members of the group intend to put forth concrete initiatives with the overall objective of reforming the EU’s decision-making system.

Differentiated foreign policy cooperation

Informal groupings are not a novelty for the EU. Throughout its evolution, the EU has frequently witnessed similar institutional practices, especially in the foreign policy domain. Despite the Lisbon Treaty’s intentions to foster the integration of member states’ foreign policies, EU foreign policy has grown increasingly differentiated over the past decade.

In a recent special issue, we bring together a collection of articles to address these complex dynamics. We conceive of recurrent interactions of subgroups of member states in specific policy domains as manifestations of ‘differentiated cooperation’. We see differentiated cooperation as a mode of governance that allows EU member states to work together in a non-uniform manner and engage in consensus-seeking.

Practices of differentiated cooperation are particularly prominent in EU foreign policy, where integration proceeds through voluntary policy coordination between national leaders and the EU institutions are not autonomous actors. As the following table demonstrates, one can distinguish between different empirical manifestations of differentiated cooperation.

Table: Differentiated cooperation in EU foreign policy

Table showing that differentiated cooperation can be split along an internal/external dimension and along a formal/informal dimension.

Source: Authors’ own elaboration.

First, interactions leading to differentiated cooperation can be both formal, such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO); and informal, such as the grouping of Nordic EU member states in EU development policies.

Second, manifestations of differentiated cooperation can occur both in the internal and external dimension of EU foreign policy. The former involves member states interacting among each other and is illustrated best by the case of groupings launched to deal with conflicts and crisis management, such as the Normandy format or Quint. The latter involves interactions between EU member states and non-EU actors within formalised settings of international cooperation, for example at the OSCE or United Nations.

Why do member states engage in this form of governance and what do they expect from it?

We see three key reasons for the occurrence of differentiated cooperation. First, this mode of governance allows member states to overcome the heterogeneity of their preferences, the institutional constraints on EU collective action and the EU’s capacity deficits.

In other words, through the establishment of informal groups, member states whose interests align and that have the capacities to work together to address a specific issue can go beyond the EU institutional framework while remaining loosely connected to it. This is particularly relevant for EU foreign policy as this domain is still characterised by unanimous decision-making, which the Group of Friends on QMV is trying to change.

Second, this mode of governance can lead to a division of labour between the EU and subgroups of member states. An illustrative example is provided by the Quint. This informal group – comprised of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States – has supported the EU-mediated dialogued between Kosovo and Serbia. In doing so, it has essentially generated instances of cooperative differentiation, with the activities of this informal group being channelled into EU activities in a cooperative way.

Third, in certain cases, differentiated cooperation can also enable the involvement of non-EU states in the EU’s decision-making framework. One recent example is the participation of Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States – key NATO allies of EU member states – in the military mobility project launched by the EU within the framework of PESCO.

Risks and rewards

The EU’s ability to act in a coordinated way is particularly relevant given the numerous security crises on the EU’s borders, notably the war in Ukraine. In this sense, the announcement by the Group of Friends on QMV of their close cooperation with the EU’s institutions and of their intention to keep the other member states regularly informed of the Group’s activities is to be welcomed.

Yet differentiated cooperation also comes with risks. Without an institutional mechanism for channelling differentiated cooperation, this mode of governance could reduce the consistency and accountability of EU foreign policy due to a lack of coordination among member states. Differentiated cooperation could thus impede the EU’s ability to defend its interests and values.

With the 2024 European Parliament elections now fast approaching, it is unlikely that a reform of the EU’s treaties will happen soon. It will therefore be crucial to strike a balance in which informal groupings can be employed as a tool to overcome stalemates, but without creating divisive practices.

About the Authors 

Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. She is also an Adjunct Professor at LUISS University and a Research Associate at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI).

Monika Sus is an Associate Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences and Visiting Professor in the Centre for International Security at the Hertie School.

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