The European Security Strategy (ESS, December 2003) provides the EU’s first attempt to model a common global vision and strategy. In the absence of common action following the Iraq war, it was devised to surmount this scenario and serve as a reference thereafter in the EU’s discourse, positioning and external action. For beyond its purpose to guide action, the ESS shapes a discourse, a shared leitmotif. This is especially true of effective multilateralism, which has become a recurring part of its discourse and a mantra for European external action, to the extent that Commission President Durão Barroso has declared it forms part of ‘the EU’s DNA’.
Yet omnipresence and repetition put effective multilateralism at risk of losing its operative meaning. Originally formulated as an alternative to the unilateralism of what was then deemed the global hiperpower, and as a response to the need to combine legality and legitimacy with effectiveness in collective international action, we should ask ourselves about its sense and meaning in today’s multipolar world. A world characterised, among other factors, by the multipolarity determined by newly emerged countries and the global economic crisis and its consequences for the configuration and agenda of the international system. A crisis in which emergency situations have been met with emergency solutions, and from which the G-20 has arisen as a forum for global governance. This world and crisis have surfaced against the era-defining backdrop of the globalising information society, whose governance raises doubts as to whether creating ad hoc structures on top of the pre-existing international architecture is enough, or whether the latter needs a redesign and reconfiguration.
What does effective multilateralism mean and what are its implications for EU strategy and action? To what extent can it remain the driving force or guiding concept towards 2030? Or should another be conceived?
Let us first consider multilateralism. It might seem a concept centred on how international action is achieved, and to some extent by whom. In terms of how, its fundamental underlying message is that issues regarding the international agenda and decision-making related to it should be dealt with within multilateral organisations. As for who should take such action, only states are members of international organisations.
Nevertheless, these assumptions might be questioned doubly. First, international organisations are not only forums, but also structures and instruments of power which reflect power balances in their very configuration and operating rules. Not only do they constitute places where power is exercised, but they themselves are the result of an exercise of power. Secondly, although states remain essential actors in the international system, they are no longer the only ones to be significant and necessary to handle problems and secure global public goods. This points to the challenge of finding room in the global governance system for other actors which also determine it –often free-riders taking its benefits–, so that they assume their responsibility and contribute effectively.
Moving from the questions of how and who to that of what multilateralism achieves, doubt also arises as to whether the current multilateral system has the necessary competences and instruments to face the challenges posed by global governance today.
Yet it is not a narrow conception of multilateralism for multilateralism’s sake that the EU promotes, but rather an effective multilateralism. This requires the effectiveness of both the multilateral system and the EU itself as an actor within it, raising the issue of the EU’s multilateral and international actorness.
The dual thesis underlying the logic and discourse which EU foreign policy fosters is relevant here. On the one hand, that the EU is a civil or normative power with characteristics that differentiate it from others in the international system, which implies a new way of building the international order that could potentially be generalised. On the other hand, that a correlation exists between the increase or strengthening of Europe’s coherence and single voice and that of the EU’s international impact and influence, so that progress in articulating this single voice should serve to develop the EU’s capacity for international actorness to its full potential. Nevertheless, a close look at reality reveals a paradox: while the recent past has witnessed an increase in the EU’s single voice, strengthened by the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s impact on the shape of the international agenda and fulfilment of its objectives therein has diminished. This is particularly noticeable in the EU’s action in international organisations and the agenda-setting and negotiations held in them.
Why is this so? Analysing this question and explaining this ‘paradox of influence’ was the aim of the DYNAMUS (Dynamics of the Multilateral System: Analysis of the Interaction between the EU and the Global Institutions) research project, developed at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals, IBEI) by a research team directed by Professor Esther Barbé. The project’s results have been published in the book Cambio mundial y gobernanza global. La interacción entre la UE y las instituciones internacionales [World change and global governance. The EU’s interaction with international institutions] (2012). It provides, on the one hand, analytical categories for the EU’s international agency in the multilateral sphere –which can be used in general to analyse the EU’s international agency– and explanatory hypotheses for it. On the other hand, the study analyses seven representative cases of multilateral negotiations which have determined the international agenda in the recent past and are globally representative of it.
An analytical approach to the EU’s international actorness in the multilateral sphere
Explaining this ‘paradox of influence’, also conceptualised as an actorness-effectiveness gap, or the EU’s insufficient effectiveness in the multilateral sphere, requires a definition of the concepts of international actorness and influence, and the variables and processes that determine them. International actorness determined by an actor’s authorship, cohesion, autonomy and recognition, for the purposes of this study translate into the EU’s ‘single voice’. This implies its legal authority to speak on behalf of the EU, and the cohesion of its message and positioning, determined by the member states’ shared preferences and values; as well as the autonomy which differentiates the EU from its member states and enables it to be configured as an international actor in itself. Meanwhile, the EU’s influence is determined by its impact as an actor both in empirical (what it does) and cognitive (what it is) terms, hence recognition, follow-up and effectiveness are fundamental criteria for analysis.
How can this single voice and influence be linked? How should the EU’s multilateral effectiveness be analysed? Such questions call for an analysis of three variables and processes: the internal, the constituent and the external/international.
The EU can be represented externally by one of its institutions or representatives via unconditional delegation, supervised delegation or coordination. Following the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, the traditional Troika was replaced by one comprising the President of the European Council, the President of the Commission and HR/VP Ashton, and on the ground by the EU heads of delegation and the European External Action Service. In general, coordination has in many cases been superseded by supervised delegation. However, analyses show that strengthening the authority or single voice of external representation has not necessarily led to an increase in autonomy. Thus, unanimity has been achieved at the expense of efficiency due to the time required to adopt straight-jacketed positions; internal success has come at the cost of less external influence. To an extent, the EU has advanced towards a single voice but one which often seems like that of a ventriloquist.
Regardless of the degree to which one may agree with this analysis, and of the possible effect of applying the commitment to the EU’s external representation adopted by the Council on 22 October 2011, there is no doubt that since the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty we find ourselves faced with an open and uncertain scenario. In spite of progress towards a single voice, the internal dimension remains a challenge and a sphere in which the EU’s international agency should be developed to its full potential.
Recognition by other actors is an essential part of actorness itself, and hence part of the challenge and difficulty of developing the EU’s international actorness and its recognition as an interlocutor and actor by the other international actors. This is all the more so in an international system in which actorness is essentially determined by having State status, and in which the ‘postmodern’ nature of the EU breaks the normal paradigms and dynamics, making recognition of the EU as differentiated from its member states problematic. As Michal Natorski points out, ‘the EU has great difficulty fitting into the international system since it lacks social recognition of its international identity [translated from the Spanish]’.
In analysing the EU’s international actorness from the perspective of recognition, we should note that recognition constitutes an analytical category. Thus, ‘the constituent dimension for external actors merely becomes an ad extram (external) “confirmation” of an identity already “constituted” ad intram (internally), which integrates values around the same notions of norms, aspirations, distinctive features or visions of the world [trans.]’. However, it is also related to the conception that an actor has of itself: the concept of civil power with a normative vocation forms part of the EU’s self-definition, which is reflected in its support for effective multilateralism as an essential goal of its external action. ‘In spite of different nuances, the notions of civil power present in European foreign policy form part of the EU’s self-understanding of its identity, as both its social ambition and constituent rules define the criteria of belonging to the EU [trans.]’. A self-conception which, as shown by the EU’s struggle to gain representation in the General Assembly of the United Nations, is not necessarily accepted by other actors. Thus a clash often occurs with ‘the institutional cultures reflected in the social norms and present practices in multilateral frameworks’, and thus ‘not only the EU’s internal actors but also the international ideational structure regarding what is appropriate in international relations can hinder the development of EU foreign policy [trans.]’. This denial of recognition is often due to perceptions of neo-colonialism or double standards on the EU’s part, and rejection of its singularity, which is seen as questioning the concept of equality internalised by other actors. This leads to the conclusion that ‘to be recognised as an international actor with all its identity baggage, the EU should also be capable of looking at itself from the perspective of other actors [trans.]’.
(3) External/international level
The new international power structure, both material and ideational, decisively influences the EU’s capacity for international actorness and its scope for effective impact and incidence on the global agenda and in the multilateral sphere. This structure is determined by ‘the rise of the rest’ and the corelative decline of the relative weight of the West and the EU in the international system, as well as by the evolution towards a multipolar but not necessarily multilateral order. We are faced with a geo-economic shift in an international system defined by interpolarity, which challenges the EU to remain one of its poles to the extent possible.
In the sphere of human rights, where the EU has broadly lost the regular support of a quarter of the United Nations members since the end of the 1990s, it can be seen that the EU’s loss of power is both material and ideational or normative, since Russia and China have managed to create an obstructionist bloc and table alternative discourses. As they seek to secure a greater share of structural power and their reflection in the multilateral sphere, the emerging powers also exercise an ideational power, proposing alternative models and paradigms. This globally affects the soft power of the EU, which is not necessarily seen as a model or mirror to imitate, but rather as an exception in many cases. In this perspective, the potential effects of the EU’s current economic and global crisis not only on its relative economic weight but also on its ideational or referential power are to be ponted out.
The international system has responded to multipolarity and the emergence of new powers by creating alternative forums of global governance such as the G-20, faced with the lack of legitimacy or operability of the formal forums of multilateral institutionalism. In this respect, multilateral organisations should be considered both as a sphere for negotiations between actors of the international system to facilitate global governance, and as a reflection of power structures and instruments of power in themselves. This raises the question of whether multilateralism can solely involve promoting the negotiation and resolution of questions on the global agenda in multilateral organisations, or whether it should ensure that the latter effectively reflect the power and relative weight of different actors in the international system. Similarly, we may ask ourselves to what extent the EU can proclaim its vocation for effective multilateralism without confronting the lack of proportion between its representation and power in multilateral organisations and the levels it genuinely exercises in the international system; as well as whether a future strategic option for the EU should be to promote changes in the multilateral system so that it gradually becomes a more adequate system of global governance, based on the EU relinquishing some of its institutional power in the system to other actors, so that this reshaping of the EU’s representation is accompanied by that of its function and competences and promoted by the acceptance of its rules. What could better guarantee the EU’s interests and values in a world in which their relative weight will decline. The EU could at the same time compensate for and promote its international actorness by fostering the progressive unification of its multilateral representation.
Consideration of these three factors –the internal, the constituent and the international– shows that the progress made towards the EU’s single voice does not compensate for the difficulties it faces at the constituent level and the loss of its relative weight in the reshaping of the international system, which explains that in spite of it the EU is still losing global influence. It also becomes clear that articulating the EU’s single voice is a necessary but insufficient condition to develop the EU’s international actorness to its full potential; also, this needs to be analysed not only looking outwards from within, as a consequence and feature of the external dimension of European construction, but also looking inwards from the outside, from the perspective and dynamics of the functioning and power of the international system. For this is the system where the EU’s international actorness is developed, exercised and determined.
This serves as a reminder, in line with many of the main recent contributions to the literature on international relations, that the progressive decline in the relative weight of the West and the EU alongside the rise of the emerging or emerged powers constitute the scenario in which all medium-term international strategies must be conceived, and specifically the European Global Strategy. Moreover, this relative decline of the EU’s power is both material and ideational, affecting its soft power. In conceptual terms, up until the present crisis the global economic system revolved around a centre and periphery of changing composition, but it is now moving towards a multi-centric system, where the successful way in which other economies have tackled the crisis reveals the existence ofdifferent models, showing that the US and Europe do not necessarily have the only recipe for economic development. We are witnessing the emergence of the ideas of the others, in a scenario where the European model will coexist with others that also project their appeal to the outside world, and soft power will not necessarily compensate the decline in hard power.
Reflections on effective multilateralism in future perspective
What conclusions and future considerations emerge from this analysis of the EU’s international actorness in the internal, constituent and international spheres?
At the internal level, there is reason to conclude that authority in itself is insufficient and must be combined with autonomy; a single voice is not enough, it needs to be ‘de-ventriloquised’. What matters is what Europe’s voice or voices –single or not– actually say, for this determines international actorness as much as who speaks and how. And it is at the sphere of content, thought and the ability to put forward new ideas where the EU has greater scope for maintaining its relative weight over time. The debate regarding the EU’s international agency needs to concentrate on what its voice and position say and why, as much as on deciding who speaks and how. Indeed, such an ability to formulate and table ideas and proposals may facilitate the latter.
At the constituent level, we face the dilemma between the post-modernisation of the international order and the modernisation of the EU. The EU has seen itself as an embryo of what a rule-based international order could be in the future, and thus a model for other actors and the very international order and system to follow. However, experience in this sphere suggests that the EU may be destined to become more the exception than the rule in the foreseeable future. The EU’s ability to promote its model and influence externally, as an example to follow, has been and is greatest in its immediate neighbourhood. Indeed, its own enlargement has been its most effective instrument of external action; but its appeal in its immediate environment should not be taken for granted further afield or globally.
This begs the question of whether the EU, while promoting the evolution of the international system in accordance with its own vision as far as possible, should not first and foremost adapt to the reality of its situation in order to achieve the highest possible degree of international actorness. Since having state status is the determining factor of international agency in the international system, would it not be more coherent for the EU to promote its transformation into a state, rather than seeking to transform the international system so that it grants the EU the international agency of a state? On the contrary, perhaps the EU should accept that while it is not a state it cannot fully realise such a potential agency. The question then becomes what might be the best way to develop the Lisbon Treaty in this perspective, which in turn raises at least two points.
On the one hand, the issue needs to be formulated from the opposite standpoint to the traditional one: instead of asking what is the highest international actorness the EU can achieve following the Lisbon Treaty, or possibly via a transformation of the latter, the question becomes what kind of EU would need to be conformed in the existing international system to reach and develop its international actorness in all its potentiality. The consideration, in essence, of the issue from the perspective of the other relevant actors in the international system and of the logic it operates globally.
On the other hand, the debate on the international actorness of the EU is usually centred on the international actions of the EU institutions, overlooking those of its member states. These are international actors and are destined to be such in the near future. Therefore, one of the best ways to strengthen the EU’s international actorness is not only to act with a single voice expressed by a single representative, but also for all the European voices present in each forum or negotiation to express a single message. To follow the metaphor used in literature on the international actorness of the EU, a shift needs to be made not only from being a hydra to being a many-legged octopus without a single guiding head, but also to a brotherhood of different faces and voices all expressing the same message. It is the responsibility of member states to achieve this. It is not only a question of what the EU says and how it speaks, but the EU institutions and member states must be seen as part of the same homogenous group by the other actors and institutions in the international system. Thus, Europeans would no longer be perceived from the outside as ‘divided and irrelevant’, for if they shared one single, homogenous and coherent message, the identity of the spokesperson would gradually become irrelevant.
Finally, let us not forget that the international actorness of the EU is not judged on a strictly case-by-case basis. Each case is influenced not only by the EU’s specific actions, be they effective or lacking, but also by the global perception of the EU’s coherence and unity of action held by the other actors interacting with it.
At the external/international level, the issue at stake is how to manage the EU’s relative decline, the reconfiguration of power and the structure of the international system; and how to maximise the scope for international actorness in this scenario. The question is not only who we want to be in the system, which is a given, but also what system we want. This creates the challenge of treating the international organisations and multilateral institutions in the system not only as a forum or sphere for negotiations, but also as an instrument and factor of power.
Assuming that one of the EU’s main strategic challenges towards 2030 is to move towards a more rule-based international system with institutions that regulate and facilitate global governance, it could consider a strategic quid pro quo option. This would involve relinquishing some of its representation or institutional power quotas to accommodate the emerging powers and, in exchange, promoting a reform of the system so that regulations and the global institutional framework better guarantee the interests of European citizens. Thus, a Europe of lesser relative weight would function in an international system which is a stronger rules-based community, an international order which is more a community of Law. Adopting this stance would also pose the challenge of recovering or compensating for the loss of representation and global power of the EU and its member states by evolving towards the EU’s single representation in international organisations.
This also leads to a rethink of the concept of effective multilateralism, taking into account the above. Starting from the assumption that multilateral organisations are not only a forum for negotiation but also a reflection of power structures and instruments, the EU faces the twofold challenge of ensuring its own effectiveness in the multilateral system and the effectiveness of the system itself. The first dimension requires the EU to exercise the highest multilateral actorness possible, taking into account the internal, constituent and external factors noted. This means tackling the challenge of building up its multilateral and international actorness not necessarily by adapting the system to itself, but itself to the system. Secondly, the multilateral system needs the actual ability to face the great global challenges and to provide global public goods, which requires its gradual transformation into a system of global governance.
Unlike the global strategy that the US, China or other key actors in the international system may contemplate, the EU’s strategy is that of an international actor which is not only such but meanwhile an actor under construction, and thus its strategy must be that of more fully becoming an international actor, of becoming such in all its potentiality. This requires consideration not only of the EU as an international actor, but also of the international system and the multilateral architecture.
On effective global governance as an alternative guiding concept
In light of the above considerations, as well as of…
- Changes in the international system since effective multilateralism was formulated 10 years ago as a guiding concept of the EU’s strategy, especially the rise of multipolarity and the emergence of the emerged countries. This has led to the idea of developing strategic associations with the polar powers of the system as one of the EU’s biggest strategic priorities since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.
- The fact that one of the EU’s biggest future challenges is to contribute constructively and effectively to satisfying global public goods and to tackling the main challenges of global viability, such as energy or environmental sustainability.
- The fact that it is only in the global sphere that such challenges can be faced and such goods can be achieved, which are required to satisfy the needs and demands of European citizens.
- That the very logic of European construction responds to the creation of a political authority above that of the state via regional integration, in order to secure public goods and satisfy the needs and demands of citizens which cannot be achieved at the state level. Therefore, it makes sense for the EU to favour building an effective global governance system to provide goods and face collective challenges that can only be tackled at the global level.
… the question arises as to whether effective global governance would be a more integrative, comprehensive and appropriate guiding concept for the global conception of the European Global Strategy than effective multilateralism. The EU would thus declare itself in favour of a system of effective and representative global governance which faces the great questions and challenges on the global agenda and seeks to obtain the global public goods.
This, in turn, raises a series of reflections and corollaries, starting with the very concept of global governance. The report Global Governance 2025: At a Critical Juncture (2010, p. 17), co-authored by the European Union Institute for Security Studies and the US National Intelligence Council, defines it as follows:
‘The term “global governance” as used in this paper includes all the institutions, regimes, processes, partnerships, and networks that contribute to collective action and problem solving at the international level. This definition subsumes formal and informal arrangements as well as the role of non-state actors in transnational settings. Regional cooperation may also be regarded as an element of global governance insofar as it contributes to broader efforts. Governance differs from government, which implies sovereign prerogatives and hierarchical authority. Global governance does not equate to world government, which would be virtually impossible for the foreseeable future, if ever’.
Thus it is not a question of renouncing effective multilateralism, but rather of seeking to frame or include it in a wider concept precisely to enhance its effectiveness. A concept which includes not only international organisations and their member states, but also other forums, actors and relations which are relevant to tackling the main questions and challenges on the global agenda, including forums for regional cooperation or integration which contribute to or impact the latter. This concept contemplates strategic relations or associations that the EU wants to build with other poles and actors in this multipolar world. Above all, it embraces the institutional architecture and instruments needed to effectively tackle global questions and challenges and secure global public goods.
The system is under construction and faces, among other issues, a multilateralisation challenge. Global crises and problems have led to the growth of informal forums and organisations to tackle them. These have served to deal with specific situations, but in the medium term the opportunity should be seized to turn them into multilateral organisations, or at least to connect them to the formal multilateral system or reform it. This is especially the case, as stated in the aforementioned report (2010, p.13), given that:
‘The emergence of informal groupings of leading countries, such as the G-20; the prospects for further regional cooperation, notably in East Asia; and the multiple contributions of non-state actors to international cooperation –although highly useful– are unlikely to serve as permanent alternatives to rule-based, inclusive multilateral institutions. Multilateral institutions can deliver public goods that summits, non-state actors and regional frameworks cannot supply, or cannot do so in a reliable way. Our foreign interlocutors stressed the need for decisions enjoying universal legitimacy, norms setting predictable patterns of behaviour based on reciprocity, and mutually agreed instruments to resolve disputes and redress torts, such as in trade matters.
‘In our assessment, the multiple and diverse governance frameworks, however flexible, are probably not going to be sufficient to keep pace with the looming number of transnational and global challenges unless extensive institutional reforms and innovations are undertaken. The capacities of the current institutional patchwork will be stretched by the type of problems facing the global order over the next few decades’.
Fundamentally, what the challenges of the global information society and multipolarity call for is the transformation of the multilateral system, essentially the international system, into an effective global governance system. One whose effectiveness is not only defined by the actors within it, but also by the system itself, in terms of its ability to resolve global problems and guarantee human life and survival on Earth.
Both the international system and the EU as an actor within it are under construction, which makes building global governance an essential aim and part of European construction.
To this end, to truly contribute to building global governance, the EU must not fail to take into account the power-related and conceptual challenges that it entails.
Regarding power, every transformation involves a renegotiation and a redistribution of institutional power. In this possible scenario, the EU could choose the above-mentioned strategic quid pro quo option. By accepting the same level of institutional power as its real power, it could transform the system towards one of effective global governance that facilitates the inclusion, representation and constructive participation of relevant actors, especially the newly emerged powers.
Conceptually, as shown, we are witnessing the birth of the ideas of the others in a polycentric world where different models and paradigms coexist and offer valid and relevant elements for governance and development, both at state level and for the building of global governance. As shown by Nicolas Berggruen and Nathan Gardels in Intelligent governance for the 21st century: a middle way between West and East, sustaining the thesis that both what they call the West’s consumer democracy and China’s modern mandarinate face problems in achieving optimum governance, yet also offer indispensable elements for it. These include, in the Chinese case, scope for taking decisions and executing policies long term, or meritocratic selection for steering policies. Whether or not we agree with its proposals for a global governance system, this book is indicative of the West’s increased awareness of the need to build global governance both from our concepts and paradigms and from those of others. Meanwhile, works such as those by Kishore Mahbubani reveal Asia’s ambition to contribute to global governance with its own ideas and proposals. This is all indicative of the recognition that now more than ever, Western universality is a contradiction in terms. Global governance also requires building in common a global culture and a shared paradigmatic and conceptual universe that can sustain it.
In sum, reflecting on the European Global Strategy does not only imply to think of the EU in the world, but also of and for the world itself, to guide it into the future and ensure its viability and survival.
Spanish Diplomat and Doctor in Political Science, currently posted at the Policy Planning Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and cooperation of Spain
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 This policy brief is one of the Elcano Royal Institute’s contributions to the European Global Strategy Project (EGS). Manuel Montobbio is a Spanish Diplomat and Doctor in Political Science, currently posted at the Policy Planning Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and cooperation of Spain. He suscribes the content of this paper on a personal basis.
 These cases are: negotiations in the agricultural sphere at the Uruguay and Doha rounds; negotiations at the review conferences on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; negotiations on international climate policy; the negotiation, revision and implementation of the Rome Statute (ICC); the EU and the Energy Charter Treaty; the EU and the role of the United Nations Security Council in the fight against transnational organised crime, regulated by the Palermo Convention and its three protocols; and the EU and the international diamond regime (the Kimberley Process). The authors consider these representative of the EU’s international action as a whole in the multilateral sphere, since they cover both high and low politics and possession and milieu goals towards the international system, which serve to confirm the hypotheses formulated in the theoretical framework. For an analysis of them in Spanish, see Barbé (2012).
 ‘El reconocimiento social de la UE en los marcos multilaterales: una potencia sui géneris en un mundo de estados’ [The EU’s social recognition in multilateral frameworks: a sui generis power in a world of states], in Esther Barbé (2012).