European Union Negotiations: Processes, Networks and Institutions

By Ole Elgström; Christer Jönsson | Go to book overview

10

The European Union as actor in international relations

The role of the external environment for EU institutional design

Joakim Reiter


Introduction

The European Union has commonly been depicted as a weak and reactive, or sometimes even non-visible, actor in international relations. Underpinning this weakness, it is often claimed, is the circumstance that the EU member states hold sway and hesitate to act as an entity. To paraphrase a former US Secretary of State: there is still no single phone number one can call to talk to Europe.

The reality of the matter is that it depends. A single phone number would no doubt suffice if one wanted to talk to the European Union about international trade, agriculture or, at least since 1999, monetary policy. Even on global environmental issues and some aspects of foreign policy, as well as on a few domestic issues, a single phone number could be sufficient - at least if one would be satisfied with a somewhat fuzzy description of a common EU standpoint. The problem is that it would be impossible, in most cases, to bring up more than one topic at once. Instead of a phone book of 25 EU heads of state, one would end up with a list of perhaps five to ten top EU functionaries and probably still have to keep track of the EU heads of state as a backup. In short, what constitutes and who represents the European Union in global affairs remain elusive to any outside observers, just as it probably does to the European public at large.

For the European Union in global affairs, diversity remains the rule - not the exception. Both within and across issue areas, there are large variations in the characteristics and functioning of the European Union as an actor in international relations. In theoretical terms, there are great differences in EU 'actorness'. In one issue area, the European Union might have reached a high level of actorness - speaking with one voice or even a single mouth - while in other areas it is hard to view the European Union as an actor at all.

The purpose of this chapter is to probe more closely into the puzzle of the issue specificity of EU actorness. It provides an attempt to trace the diversity in the structures of the Union's internal policy coordination and EU actorness to the external environment and, more specifically, to the international cooperative arrangements in which the European Union and its member states participate.

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