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Op-Ed

Grading European Foreign Policy

Justin Vaïsse

While I have always been interested in international relations, I never was a student of European foreign policy – even less of an expert. Actually, I always found it boring. Looking at the dry institutional charts of the EU institutions, the multi-year aid programmes and the blank and anonymous faces of European officials and even their leaders, something was missing. Tragedy, I guess, or history. Or agency – the feeling that something important was happening there, that Brussels was an actor that mattered, that future historians of international relations would have to devote some space to Europe in their books.

Sure, I knew the official line: that the anonymity, predictability and sense of order that accompanied well-managed three-year conditionality programmes were, in a sense, a triumph of reason and that boredom was a small price to pay for the victory of common sense over crises, tragedy and chaos – and a continent finally at peace. But still, I much preferred focusing on French or British diplomacies or, even better, American foreign policy, where tragedy was in large supply, where ideas and passions were clashing, where the sense of history was vibrant.

But after a couple of years spent in the United States, I started having second thoughts. Not so much about the dry aspect of EU bureaucracy, but, rather, about the true identity of European foreign policy, and the increasing role it was playing in the world. Seen from Washington, European foreign policy was certainly not restricted to EU institutions. It incorporated what Berlin, London and Paris – and all the others – were doing on a national basis, or through various groupings like the EU-3. In other words, it really was a spectrum of actions and initiatives ranging from the most centralized (visas, trade) to the well coordinated (climate change) and the loosely coordinated (humanitarian action) – up to the completely chaotic (G20) or even conflictual (European security). A messy reality, for sure, but a more engaging and lively one than just cold institutions. And more importantly, that messy reality was expressing a vision of the world and defending interests that were mine as a European.

The idea of the scorecard on European foreign policy now produced by the European Council on Foreign Relations sprung from this realization, and the discussion with Mark Leonard, Hans Kundnani and all the colleagues at ECFR started in 2009 from an interest in what we considered were three essential questions: first, is that “messy reality” of European foreign policy nonetheless making a difference in the world – is it working, and where? Second, to what extent are national interests compatible, and are they subsumed by a larger European interest – in other words, in which areas do Estonian interests differ from Spanish interests in the world? Thirdly, and most importantly, are national policies, shaped by decades and sometimes centuries of different diplomatic traditions and by geography, economic interests and domestic concerns, slowly converging – is there such a thing as Europeanization?

The early version of the scorecard was focused on this question of convergence, and was historical in nature – looking back at 1990, 1995, 2000 and 2005, and measuring progress in convergence and impact. Then we realized that Europe was still young – and so were we. 2010 was enough of a “Year Zero” for European foreign policy to start then, and by repeating the exercise each year, we would be able to acquire this historical perspective in 5 or 15 years from now.

The resulting Scorecard, which can be consulted here, gives a unique overview of Europe’s actions in the world in 80 policy areas and makes it clear that there is such a thing as an acquis diplomatique for Europe – though still incomplete and still frustrating. More importantly, judging by the first reactions to it, and helped by the events in Libya, the Scorecard seems to be encouraging a discussion about Europe’s role and behaviour in the world – our tools, our values and ideals, our interests, our vision. “Policy” is suddenly back in “European foreign policy” – along with history and agency. And it becomes decidedly exciting.

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