EU foreign policy scholarship has made an undoubted contribution to our understanding of politics at the global level. First, it has added to our understanding of what EU membership means for member states. The complex and reciprocal relationship between national political systems and a developing European-level polity poses many challenging questions to comparative politics and international relations. EU foreign policy studies has outlined – in some detail – how and why member states have contributed to the creation of collective foreign policy making at European level and how this process of collective policy making has in turn impacted the foreign policies of the member states and the impact this has/has not made on the global system. Second, this scholarship has offered varying conceptions of what the EU represents as an international actor. This debate is ongoing – but it has added richly to conversations concerning the role of interests, identity and institutions in International Relations. In doing both these things, EU foreign policy scholarship has also created a visible – if multilane (!) – bridge between European Studies and International Relations. At the same time, we can’t overlook the mote in our eyes. Our fascination with the processes of this unique multi-level policy making machinery does lead us – from time to time – to excessively thick description, to the ever finer parsing of diplomatic and treaty language and the reinvention of too many wheels.
This scholarship also suffers from multiple contemporary challenges. While the community of scholars is large and growing, it can suffer from a tendency towards marginalisation and detachment. Too often our big professional conferences, in International Relations and European Studies, feature panels and sections dedicated to EU foreign policy, but too rarely do we see EU foreign policy papers featuring in mainstream IR panels on human rights, trade, and security or in mainstream European Studies panels on governance, policy making and polity-building/fragmentation. Our community also tends to be somewhat mendicant, shuttling randomly between IR and ES conferences and professional associations without always setting down firm roots in either. We also suffer from the fact that the object of our study is unique, that we are juggling multiple actors at multiple levels and that the entire project is a work in progress and thus a moving target of analysis. All this tends to prompt something of a ‘magpie’ tendency – to seize on the latest marginal iteration of change as a focus of immediate and all-consuming analysis. There is finally, of course, the benchmark problem. This derives from the very uniqueness of the EU that fascinates us. Against what is the Union’s evolving foreign, security and defence policy to be compared: that of the United States, of a mid-ranking ‘soft’ power like Canada, or perhaps better yet another intergovernmental actor such as NATO or the UN? These puzzles are enduring, and their definitive resolution eludes us.
So where might we go from here? For an early career scholar looking at the field, I’d suggest a number of avenues for future research direction. First, we certainly need deeper and more profound analysis of EU foreign policy and legitimacy. How can a multinational, multi-state polity endeavour to ensure that its foreign, security and defence policy is being properly grounded in active democratic consent? To what extent, if at all, is the Union representing externally the will, interests and values of Europeans- either as individual citizens or on behalf of their state? Second, we have been caught napping with the so-called ‘return’ of geopolitics. Seduced by the possibilities of the end of the Cold War, we had come to assume that a tolerant, cosmopolitan and liberal democratic international order was upon us and that the European Union was the poster child of this new age. Today, beset by formidable political challenges both internal and external, how does the Union respond; a gentle slide into global irrelevance, a collapse born of its false premise and false promise or a powerful re-launch in the vanguard of the defence and promotion of the values upon which the Union is claimed to be based? Third, I would encourage early stage researchers – and those of us that are still adaptable (!), to look more deeply at an emerging European military industrial complex. The intersection between security/defence and commercial/industrial interests is increasingly dense and one which no state has yet fully mapped or managed. In the rarefied world of EU policy making, where a fully functioning public space has yet to develop, the scope for policy capture by narrow sectional interests at the expense of the public good (both domestic and global) is too great. This is all the more problematic at a time when – faced with profound security threats – the boundaries between domestic and international security realms has been near-erased.
Certainly the field of EU foreign, security and defence studies builds upon a solid base facing into these new challenges. If we can keep our focus on the larger issues, on the added value that we bring to our respective home disciplines and on better explaining and understanding the unique phenomena that we are studying, we will continue to serve our communities and the wider global society of which we are a part