VOLUME 17 ISSUE 6 December 2020

Markos Kyprianou
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs
Former EU Commissioner


The continuous debate on whether the EU is “punching below its weight” in global affairs is an implied admission that the EU does not have the global role that it should. And the calls by EU leaders, like the French President or the President of  the Commission, that the EU must become more assertive internationally and more effective as a global player only prove that it is not yet, at least not to the extent that it should be. With the current geopolitical situation, a more active and more assertive global EU is becoming indispensable.

The EU Treaty sets the parameters for its common foreign policy and these include the same principles that apply within the EU. Because of this, and as a strong supporter of multilateralism and promoter of dialogue, the EU can act in most cases as an honest broker and can contribute to the solution of problems around the world. The EU has the size and the economic strength to achieve that. In my view what is lacking is a geostrategic ambition and the appetite for more involvement in global affairs. One of the reasons is that diverse national interests of member states prevail over the common European ones. Another is the preoccupation with domestic issues which undermines any mood for a more active foreign policy.

The EU gives the impression that it is content to take the back seat and let others, usually the USA, drive. And it is happy to pick up the bill when this is needed, feeling that it has done its duty. The truth however is that the world balance needs the EU, but it must start thinking strategically with long term targets. It needs to formulate pragmatic, interests-driven strategies. For the moment there are too many priorities and an over-expanded agenda with no strategic objectives.

It is true that the Lisbon Treaty has not created the common foreign policy that integrationists would have wanted. Still it has set the foundations to build a credible policy provided there is the political will. Admittedly there are some inherent weaknesses but, in my view, they do not prevent the EU from having an effective external policy.

One challenge is the need for unanimity. Many voices want this to change. I disagree. In the first place, without this rule it is doubtful that the member states would have agreed to the new Treaty arrangements for the common foreign policy. As the member states have maintained their national foreign policies it is important that there is consensus at the EU level. Unanimity provides legitimacy and compliance.

There is, however, room for improvement. The EU usually follows developments and almost never leads; it also appears to be slow in adapting to evolving international political crises. It is true that it is difficult to take a leading role when its policies must be the compromise and synthesis of 27 different national policies.  However, this perceived weakness from its diversity also offers an advantage. Its positions are the synthesis of diverse views and as a result the EU has greater credibility than other global players. The problem is that the EU rarely takes advantage of that. The EU is not perceived by interlocutors as an influential or key player (or even as a player at all). Consequently, it has limited influence not matching its size and economic strength.

The EU is rather the cheque-book holder than the deal broker and problem solver. It is very active in humanitarian and development assistance but shies away from a leading political role. It is absent in Syria, in Libya even in Nagorno Karabakh. The lack of European action has allowed Russia and Turkey to be the main players around EU’s neighbourhood, and as expected promoting their own interests.

A strong assertive and far reaching EU foreign policy is very important for all EU member states but even more for the smaller ones. These can have greater influence in global affairs through the EU’s common foreign policy, provided of course that there is one. And here is the Catch 22 paradox. A smaller member state by withholding its consent can influence an EU decision on external relations but risks in the end not having such a decision at all; but if it does not do so, it may end up with a decision so watered down that it has no effect.

Cyprus as a small EU member needs an ambitious, effective, and principled EU foreign policy. In helping to formulate it Cyprus acquires influence beyond her size. To achieve this, Cyprus must be active at the EU level and have views on all global challenges that should concern the EU. She loses credibility if she is one-track minded and focuses only on Turkey and East Mediterranean. To be convincing Cyprus must appreciate that the EU has to deal with issues broader and further than the region around Cyprus. Therefore, she must contribute to every debate on EU’s external relations and be constructive on issues that are important to other member states. And on matters of interest to her, Cyprus should influence policies by creating alliances within the EU and through arguments and persuasion. It is true that she can block decisions, but this does not necessarily work to her advantage. In the end, this may alienate allies and still not achieve its target. Withholding consent must be the last resort and should be related to the issues under discussion.

In conclusion despite the benefits and the importance of bilateral external relations for Cyprus, these cannot replace the added value of a strong EU foreign policy. As the debate on this issue continues, Cyprus must contribute to it and push for a global assertive role of the EU. Not just for Europe’s benefit but of Cyprus’s as well.