Informal Groupings in EU Approach to Conflicts and Crises

EU foreign and security policy is often made by informal groups of member states rather than the EU institutions. In a new article, which is part of a special issue on differentiated cooperation in EU foreign policy, Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré studies these informal groups with respect to the cases of Kosovo, Libya, and Syria.

Informal groupings of member states are not a novelty in EU foreign policy. In the past, these groupings were generally conceived as attempts to solve the shortcomings of the collective logic on which EC/EU foreign policy was based and the ensuing lack of unified leadership. After decades of progressive Europeanisation, the Lisbon Treaty should have not only further centralised member states’ foreign policies but also filled this leadership vacuum through the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Nevertheless, informal groupings continued to steer EU approach to conflicts and crises, often by interacting with non-EU actors in institutionalised international cooperation settings without receiving a formal mandate from EU institutions and/or the other member states. How can we explain their emergence and various types in EU foreign policy?

The informal groupings considered are phenomena typical of the EU. In federal regimes and in international organizations alike, it has become a common practice for ad hoc coalitions of states to informally engage in differentiated efforts in international affairs. Nevertheless, these subnational actors do not generally engage in international settings dealing with matters under the exclusive jurisdiction of central governments, namely security-related issues.

At the same time, these informal groupings do not simply derive from the existence of overlapping international organizations in international security arrangements. They have a level of embeddedness in the EU formal institutional framework which is unprecedented in the interaction between ad hoc military coalitions and international/regional organisations. Moreover, member states participating in these informal groupings generally commit time and effort to sustaining EU policies on specific foreign policy issues in addition to those already devised by other member states and the EU as a whole.

These groups are not simply implementing branches of pre-determined EU policies. They often support, if not lead, the preparation, drawing up and evaluation of relevant EU policies on specific dossiers. Lastly, while national governments generally use ad hoc military coalitions for their immediate responses to imminent conflicts and crises, the informal groupings considered are persistent over time, as is epitomised by the informal group which has been participating in the Quint ever since 1994.

Nonetheless, to date, there is no systematic knowledge about informal groupings in EU foreign policy. Understanding their emergence and significance for EU foreign policy is particularly relevant in an international system marred by hard security concerns. This is even more so if one considers that external crises and conflicts are becoming increasingly multifaceted and transnational, and hence less solvable by EU member states individually.

My article argues that the emergence of informal groupings can be ascribed to conflicts among EU member states and the weakness of EU capacity for responding to conflicts and crises. At the same time, the article claims that the combination between the level of conflict intensity among EU member states and the EU level of capacity over time and across policy issues determines the development of specific informal groupings, and hence of specific manifestations of differentiation in relation to EU foreign policy. Kosovo, Libya and Syria represent three typical cases of the emergence and various manifestations of informal groupings.

Indeed, the Western Balkans’ Berlin Process and the P3+2 format in Libya indicate that when the member states generally agreed on a collective effort but lacked the capacities to address a specific policy issue, informal groupings have complemented the EU activities in international cooperation settings. While generating instances of combinative differentiation, they tempered the lack of effective policy co-ordination marring EU foreign policy.

At the same time, the Quint, the Berlin Process on Libya, and the International Syria Support Group show that when a high level of conflict intensity within the EU coupled with a high level of capacity, informal groupings manifested themselves as instances of cooperative differentiation in EU foreign policy. Nonetheless, when high intensity conflicts among EU member states have occurred and the EU has lacked the capacities to address specific issues, informal groupings have essentially replaced EU formal institutions. The Contact Group, the Friends of Libya Group and the Friends of Syria Group demonstrate that these groupings gave rise to forms of competitive differentiation within EU foreign policy.

One may wonder whether over time member states’ preferences for informal groups might reverse the progressive trend of centralisation of their foreign policies in the European integration process. As the informal groupings considered are an unprecedented phenomenon in both federal regimes and international organization, they inevitably raise an important theoretical challenge for the European integration of core state powers.

At first sight, these groupings seem to be positive devices rendering EU foreign policy more efficient and hence strengthening the EU stance in the international arena. Indeed, these distinctive patterns of interaction among member states may make EU foreign policy decision-making processes quicker and increase the likelihood that member states will devote their resources to achieving EU objectives in international politics.

Nonetheless, they cannot be considered a panacea for the urgent need to reform EU governance. Not only can informal groupings as they stand serve only short-term purposes but they are likely to sustain governance action in multiple segmented patterns thus hampering the overall consistency of EU foreign policy. In addition,  informal groupings are likely to decrease the already limited legitimacy of EU foreign policy. In fact, although their activities also have externalities on member states that are excluded from them, informal groupings lack mechanisms to ensure their accountability.

Maria Giulia Amadio Viceré is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute (EUI). She is the author of ‘Informal groupings as types of differentiated cooperation in EU foreign policy: the cases of Kosovo, Libya, and Syria’, which is available here.

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