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Values and Interests in EU Foreign Policy

European map with Ukraine in focus. Image: ClkerFreeVectorImages/Pixabay

Anyone remotely familiar with EU foreign policy will be no stranger to invocations of European values underpinning, and, indeed, driving, European external action. From policies on climate change and agriculture to trade to defence and security, the rhetoric generated by various EU bodies typically elucidates a “set of common values” that the respective policies promote or embody. A crucial nuance is that ‘values,’ which have been incorporated into the primary law of the European Union through the Lisbon Treaty, are juxtaposed to ‘interests.’  This juxtaposition often means that if and when the EU fails to live up to its much-touted values, it is charged with ‘hypocrisy.’  The inconvenient truth, however, is that like all actors, Europe has interests as well as values, and these are frequently at odds with each other across virtually every policy area. More often than not, interests, far from being ‘inspired’ by values, have proven insular, short-sighted, and at times downright mercenary. At the same time, it is naïve to expect Europe’s policymakers to pay more attention to the plight of Syrian refugees than domestic populations’ preoccupation with keeping their own welfare and prosperity undisturbed by crises engulfing much of the world outside the Continent.  The solution, it would then seem, lies in doing away with the gratuitous narrative emanating from Brussels that continues to raise unjustified expectations by placing values at the rhetorical heart of European foreign policy.

Values vs. interests?

Interests, as many Europeans are fond of pointing out, are what ‘hegemonic’ actors (read: the United States) or ‘traditional’ ones (read: everyone other than the EU) pursue.  Whereas these actors are engaged in a zero-sum struggle to secure a finite amount of resources, economic benefits, or geopolitical influence, the European Union is supposed to be different.  Instead, EU diplomats, officials, and, crucially, many citizens, routinely assert that the Union has left behind this kind of antiquated struggle for survival in which safeguarding one’s own security undermines that of others.  Europe, according to many Europeans, pursues values rather interests.

Leaving aside the inflammatory rhetoric and introspection emanating from the Greek crisis and a potential ‘Brexit’, the area where the ‘values, not interests’ discourse is closest to orthodoxy is in EU foreign policy – and in security and defence policy in particular. The EU, after all, unabashedly lays claim to the concept of comprehensive security, and many European pundits have made convincing cases that ‘human security’ lies at the core of European strategic culture.   Indeed, who in Europe would not want to leave behind the militaristic paradigm of inter-state security inherited from the last century – to embrace a ‘holistic’ understanding of conflict with an emphasis on its human cost? Despite the recent ‘return’ of great power politics to Europe’s borders, the answer is: almost no-one.

This is why emphasizing the ‘hypocrisy’ of the EU’s insistence on values as a foundation for its external action is only half the story. Obviously, the contradictions of EU foreign policy abound, from international trade objectives cannibalizing development goals to ‘regional stability’ discourses justifying support for repressive regimes. In the current context, however, actors should be lauded for daring to ground their behavior in principles that transcend mere self-preservation. In these volatile times, such ambition represents a bold and much-needed vision for the future. This is why it is so unwise for the EU to insist on emphasizing its distinctness as a values-based human rights actor.   All actors, after all, promote values of one “kind” or another all the time – whether knowingly or not.

Europe’s double standards, but not the obvious kind

Rather, the charge justifiably leveled at Europe may consist in the distance between the values it espouses and the interests that it pursues.  For example, as scores of illegal migrants desperately seek safety and a better life on European shores, the Hungarian parliament has approved the construction of a massive barrier along the border with Serbia; Denmark has drastically cut benefits to asylum seekers, and French police continue to bar entry to “hundreds of African migrants stranded at Ventimiglia.”  Yet what if not the migrant crisis is a security problem in need of a ‘human focus’ and a comprehensive approach?  Similarly, the conflict in Ukraine has spawned sermons highlighting the importance of Russian gas and the fear of Russia’s military arsenal as justifications for allowing a humanitarian crisis and an armed conflict to fester on its borders. Yet what better symbolizes the pulling power of the EU model than the image of Ukrainians aspiring at all costs to be part of the European family?

European publics, anxious as they are over their economic futures in light of the most recent economic downturn, have little sympathy for the tragedies breaking out beyond their borders.  They do not believe that the solution to security crises in the world beyond their ‘Kantian paradise’ lies in ravaged populations relocating en masse to European territory. They foresee that confronting an aggressor such as Russia would inevitably require some economic sacrifice on the part of EU member states – sacrifice that Europe’s leaders have thus far been unwilling to make. In all these respects, like any other actor, Europe pursues its interests.

It is beyond the scope of this post to debate the nature– moral or otherwise – of European values. Nevertheless, EU policymakers, analysts, and publics should stop opening up the much- embattled Union to continuous charges of hypocrisy and double-standards. Perhaps the time has come for some much-need honesty. In this case, that would mean embracing a statement such as the following one: the European Union, like other international actors, first and foremost safeguards its interests, however defined. If and only if these allow, it also acts to protect the values it has declared to be important.


Julia Muravska is an Analyst at Avascent. She holds a PhD  in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where her research examined the emergence of the defence equipment market in the EU. Previously, Julia worked for the Defence and Security Programme of Transparency International UK, with a focus on counter-corruption in defence procurement and defence corporate initiatives

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