From the time it was founded in the 1950s, the EU has regarded itself as a civilian power. NATO
was the forum where many of the original EU members could focus on questions of Cold War
defense and security.

The end of the Cold War, however, sparked debates within the EU about the desirability of developing a stronger foreign policy identity. After some early steps in that direction, Europe’s inability to mount a strong political or military intervention in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s lent renewed urgency to such
efforts while also stimulating initiatives to build an EU security and defense capability.

The Treaty on European Union

The 1992 Treaty on European Union outlines the broad set of principles that guide the EU’s
external policies and actions. Under the treaty, the EU aims

  • to safeguard its values, fundamental interests, security, independence, and integrity;
  • consolidate and support democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the principles of
    international law;
  • preserve peace, prevent conflicts and strengthen international security, in accordance with
    the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, with the principles of the Helsinki
    Final Act and with the aims of the Charter of Paris, including those relating to external
  • foster the sustainable economic, social and environmental development of developing
    countries, with the primary aim of eradicating poverty;
  • encourage the integration of all countries into the world economy, including through the
    progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade;
  • help develop international measures to preserve and improve the quality of the
    environment and the sustainable management of global natural resources, in order to ensure
    sustainable development;
  •  assist populations, countries and regions confronting natural or man-made disasters; and
    promote an international system based on stronger multilateral cooperation and good
    global governance.

The European Security Strategy

The European Security Strategy (ESS), released in 2003, sets out three broad strategic
objectives for EU policymakers:

  • First, most immediately, the EU should take necessary actions to address a
    considerable list of global challenges and security threats, including regional
    conflicts, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, state failure,
    organized crime, disease, and destabilizing poverty. (The 2008 Report on the
    Implementation of the European Security Strategy adds piracy, cyber security,
    energy security, and climate change to the list.
  • Second, the EU should focus particularly on building regional security in its
    neighborhood: the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Mediterranean region, and the
    Middle East.
  • Third, over the longer term, the EU should seek the construction of a rules-based,
    multilateral world order in which international law, peace, and security are
    ensured by strong regional and global institutions.

The Common Foreign and Security Policy

Building on earlier efforts to coordinate member states’ foreign policies, the 1992 Treaty on
European Union formally established the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. CFSP deals
with international issues of a political or diplomatic nature, including issues with a security or
military orientation—“high politics.” Under the EU treaties, these types of political and security
issues remain the prerogative of the member state governments—conceptually, in the case of
CFSP, “common” means 27 sovereign governments choosing to work together to the extent that
they can reach a consensus on any given policy issue.
Institutions and Actors

The EU institutions representing the member state governments—the European Council (the
heads of state or government) and the Council of the European Union (also called the Council of
Ministers)—play the defining role in formulating CFSP.

The European Council is the EU’s highest level of political authority. It meets twice every six
months (an “EU Summit”), and more often if warranted by exceptional circumstances. It is the
responsibility of the European Council to “identify the strategic interests and objectives of the
Union” with regard to its external action—the European Council supplies political direction and
defines the priorities that shape CFSP.

Decisions are made on the basis of consensus.The President of the European Council is tasked with managing its work, facilitating consensus,
and helping to ensure policy continuity, while also serving as the group’s spokesman. The High Representative also takes part in the work of the European Council and may submit CFSP
proposals for consideration.

The President of the European Commission is also a member of the European Council.
The Council of Ministers is the other primary forum for developing political consensus and
direction, and it is where most of the formal mechanics of CFSP decision making are carried out.
The foreign ministers of the 27 member states typically meet once a month (the Foreign Affairs
Council configuration of the Council of Ministers).

The Foreign Affairs Council is chaired by the High Representative—as president of the Foreign
Affairs Council, she seeks to facilitate consensus among the group. With the support of the
European External Action Service, she is then responsible for managing, implementing, and
representing CFSP decisions.

The High Representative and the Foreign Affairs Council are also supported by the Political and
Security Committee (PSC), a Council structure composed of ambassadors from the member
states. The PSC monitors and assesses international affairs relevant to CFSP, provides input into
CFSP decision making, and monitors the implementation of CFSP. The work of the PSC is
closely associated with the High Representative and the EEAS.


The EU’s 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam first identified four main CFSP instruments: Principles and
Guidelines, which provide general political direction; Common Strategies, which set out
objectives and means; Joint Actions, which address specific situations; and Common Positions,
which define an approach to a particular matter.11 CFSP elements produced before December
2009 are officially referenced under the phrasing of the Treaty of Amsterdam.

The Lisbon Treaty reconceptualizes CFSP instruments into four types of Decisions:

  • on thestrategic objectives and interests of the EU,
  • on common positions,
  • on joint actions, and
  • on the implementing arrangements for common positions and actions.

A country may abstain from voting and allow the others to move ahead on the basis of unanimity. Once a CFSP decision has been adopted, qualified majority voting  may be used with regard to implementing measures. The EU typically prefers to operate on the basis of consensus as much as possible.

Principles and Guidelines (or Decisions on the strategic objectives and interests of the EU),
decided at the highest political level, shape the framework of EU policies and actions. The
conclusions and results documents published after a meeting of the European Council or the

Foreign Affairs Council are the main ways of promulgating strategic decisions agreed by EU
leaders and governments in the area of CFSP.Between such meetings, the High Representative
may also simply release a CFSP statement on behalf of the EU that expresses a consensus
viewpoint about an international development.

Strategies and Decisions

The key strategy documents adopted by the European Council in recent years—such as the
European Security Strategy itself, the EU Strategy Against Proliferation of Weapons of Mass
Destruction (2003), the EU Counterterrorism Strategy (2005), and the EU Internal Security
Strategy (2010)—also fall into the category of Principles and Guidelines (or Decisions on the
strategic objectives and interests of the EU).15

These types of high-level political direction may trigger subsequent activity that formalizes the
status of agreed concepts or applies them more specifically and concretely. Common Positions
and Joint Actions (or Decisions on common positions or joint actions) take political agreement a
step further, committing member states to their provisions after formal adoption by the Council of

Common Positions often reiterate the EU’s objectives and define a collectively agreed diplomatic
approach to a particular region or country. For many observers in the United States, the EU’s
position on Cuba may be the most widely known act of this type, but the EU has also adopted

Formal Common Strategies as identified in the Treaty of Amsterdam have fallen into disuse. The EU adopted three such CFSP Common Strategies: on Russia (1999), Ukraine (1999), and the Mediterranean region (2000).

These documents, adopted under the auspices of the European Council, combined objectives, positions, and actions under a comprehensive, long-term vision for the relationship—compared to the Common Strategies, the focus of a Common Position is relatively narrower and more immediate. All three Common Strategies, however, have long expired. They have not been replaced by updated or amended versions, and no new instruments of this type have been formulated.

Common Positions with regard to countries such as Zimbabwe, Belarus, and North Korea. As this
abbreviated list suggests, the EU generally uses these types of CFSP Decisions to address a
problematic situation, often involving a foreign government that fails to respect principles of
human rights, democracy, rule of law, or international law. In addition, rather than dealing with a
single country or region, a Common Position might address a cross-cutting topic such as conflict
prevention and resolution, nonproliferation and arms control, or terrorism.

Sanctions and Actions

In relevant cases, sanctions are often included as part of a broader Common Position. As of
February 2013, the EU had sanctions in place against governments, organizations, or individuals
of 27 countries, plus al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.18 Although the EU generally looks to a
United Nations Security Council mandate to impart legitimacy for sanctions, in almost all cases
the Council of Ministers must adopt a formal instrument for the EU to put sanctions in place. As
is the case with EU sanctions on Syria, for example, there may now also be a stand-alone CFSP
Decision on “restrictive measures” in some instances.

Joint Actions often consist of launching or extending an out-of-area civilian or military operation
under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). (This process and CSDP missions are
discussed in greater detail in “The Common Security and Defense Policy” section below.) Past
Joint Actions have also included the appointment of EU Special Representatives (EUSRs), senior
diplomats assigned to a sensitive country or region in order to give the EU extra political clout.19
A Joint Action might also provide financial or other support to the activities of an international
organization engaged in efforts such as nonproliferation (the International Atomic Energy
Agency, for example) or peace building (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in

This article draws on the European Union: Foreign and Security Policy; A Congressional Research Paper.

Share this article