Spanish version: ¿Actor regional o global? El perfil internacional de la UE 


Introduction – 5

  1. Presence, not power – 9
  2. Not only soft presence – 13
  3. Towards technology and security – 17
  4. The EU’s diversity – 21
  5. A closer Atlantic – 25
  6. Our neighbours – 31
  7. Enlargement – 33
  8. Latin America: the wider Atlantic space – 35
  9. A connected Asia – 37
  10. Conclusions – 39

Annex: methodology – 41
References – 45


The upcoming ‘Geopolitical Commission’ has the task of re-thinking several aspects of the EU’s foreign policy and global role. This reflection will necessarily build on the current global strategy, published in 2016, which insists on the need for the EU to upscale its military capacities and to focus on its nearest and extended neighbourhood.

By means of the Elcano Global Presence Index, this policy paper aims to depict the EU’s international profile while tracking to what extent its features and the objectives of the EU’s global strategy are aligned with the volume, nature and geographical allocation of the Union’s external projection.

As stated in the EU’s global strategy, there is a significant gap between the EU’s presence and its international influence. In that same line, and unlike other major international players, its soft profile still needs to be balanced with stronger military capacities. However, despite what the strategic document claims, the EU external projection is strongly concentrated   in few facets and member states. This is also linked to its geographical allocation, with a decreasing importance of the near and extended neighbourhood (including candidate countries) with respect non-EU West Europe, Asia, North America and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Moreover, the exact consequences of Brexit on the EU’s global presence remain unknown.


The EU renewed its strategic document for foreign policy and security in 2016. The current strategy (Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy– henceforth EUGS) (EC, 2016) has been assessed by academic literature from different perspectives. These assessments can prove to be particularly useful, as the upcoming ‘Geopolitical Commission’ has the task of re- assessing the Union’s foreign policy and strategic role (Biscop, 2019).

Some authors focus on the relevance and implementation of its key principles such as, for instance, resilience (Tocci, 2019; Wagner & Anholt, 2016), politicisation (Barbé & Morillas, 2019) and differentiation, co-ownership and flexibility in the EU’s relation with its Eastern neighbours (Rodríguez Prieto, 2018). Although according to several assessments the strategy is a realistic guide for the EU’s foreign and security policy in the near future (Davis Cross, 2016; Grevi, 2016; Juncos, 2017; K. E. Smith, 2017), it is also seriously challenged by the Brexit process (Biscop, 2016; Sidiropoulos, 2016; K. E. Smith, 2017). Moreover, it has also been claimed that this strategic document might be failing to address the current transitional order (Howorth, 2016; Newman, 2018).

From a geographical perspective, the strategy focuses on the EU’s immediate borders and extended neighbourhood, adopting a regional rather than global approach (Dijkstra, 2016; Grevi, 2016; Juncos, 2017; Winn, 2019).2 In this vein, neighbouring countries such as those included in the European Neighbourhood Partnership (ENP) (Johansson-Nogués, 2018), the MENA region (Harders, Jünemann, & Khatib, 2017) and Russia (Korosteleva, 2019) are now depicted as a source of challenges and this is also reflected in the approach to specific external actions or policies, such as migration (Ceccorulli & Lucarelli, 2017) and security (Legrand, 2016).

This policy paper aims to contribute to the debate by exploring the EUGS –both its claims on the nature of the EU’s external projection and its objectives regarding foreign action– from the perspective of the Elcano Global Presence Index. First, it details the gap between the EU’s global presence and its level of international power; secondly, it looks at the nature of its presence (soft, hard, technological…); third, it focuses on the domestic construction of the Union’s projection; and, finally, it looks at its geographical composition by destination.

Regarding the domestic grounds of the EU’s global presence, the Union is here defined including the UK, in accordance with the EU as defined in the EUGS and taking into consideration that although Brexit has recently come to pass, a transition period will follow until the end of 2020. Moreover, as detailed below, the exact consequences of Brexit for the Union’s external projection remain unknown.

The Elcano Global Presence Index aims to reflect to what extent (and on what grounds) countries or groups of countries project themselves beyond their borders on the basis of three dimensions –economic, military and soft– that comprise 16 variables– from primary goods to military capacities and development cooperation–. The Index’s objective is twofold. On the one hand, it hopes to contribute to the debate on conceptualising and measuring the globalisation process. On the other, it assesses the foreign policy of the countries included in the calculation, for instance, by comparing efforts and means versus the actual level of international presence, by defining sectoral presence profiles and by establishing a relation between presence and influence. Consequently, its second object is to provide a tool for foreign policy making (see Figure 1).

Source: Elcano Royal Institute, Elcano Global Presence Index.

Since the first publication of the Index in 2011 (Olivié & Molina, 2011), and on a regular basis, it has calculated the projection of an increasing number of countries (up to 120 in the latest edition). To these, the EU (as a single entity) was added in the 2012 edition. Roughly, this is achieved by adding the EU member states’ global presence and detracting intra-European international exchanges.3 This also allows the EU to be calibrated as an international player, leads to an understanding of the different contributions of the 28 member states in different dimensions (eg, the economic, military and soft) and specific variables (from troop deployments to international aid) and helps determine the Union’s softer or harder projections (Olivié & Gracia, 2018c).

Although all these data and analyses have proved to be a useful tool for understanding key aspects of the EU’s global role, significant questions remain that are addressed in the EUGS. These refer to the geographical breakdown of the EU’s global presence, such as,  for instance, the magnitude of its transatlantic links and its bonds with its immediate and enlarged neighbourhood (which is, as mentioned above, one of the EUGS’s key geographical concepts). Answering these questions poses an important methodological challenge as it requires conceptualising the geographical distribution of certain indicators (such as military capacity and science) and combining the Index database and sources with additional official national and/or European data sources.4 The results, however, provide a good basis for analysing the geographical pattern of external relations outlined in the EUGS.

Iliana Olivié
Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and Coordinator of the Elcano Global Presence Index Project
| @iolivie

Manuel Gracia
Analyst on the Elcano Global Presence Index project
 | @mgraciasn

1 The authors are grateful to Davide Rognini for his invaluable research assistance.

2 To this, (M. E. Smith, 2016) argues that, much to the contrary, the geographical approach of the EUGS is still too broad and not sufficiently focused on the European neighbourhood.

3 For further details on this methodology, see (Olivié & Gracia, 2018b).

4 A similar disaggregation was also carried out for the pilot case on one member state, Spain. Details on the methodology and results can be found in (Olivié, Gracia, & Gomariz, 2017).