Project #Regionalism, Policy Brief §4: How the EU Formulates its Foreign Policy Towards China


How the EU formulates its foreign policy towards China,  Teodor Kalpakchiev,

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  1. Institutional matters

Important to note as a starter that in foreign policy mater, the EU stance does not preclude member states from formulating differentiated or even diverging stance in the foreign policy domain (Declaration 13 of the Lisbon Treaty). The foreign and security policy is an element of the so called core state powers alongside fiscal policy, border protection and national security concerns. This includes relations with third countries and participation in international organisations, including a Member State’s membership of the Security Council of the United Nations (Declaration 14 of the Lisbon Treaty).

Regarding the procedural aspects, Art. 11 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union stipulates that „It shall be defined and implemented by the European Council and the Council acting unanimously, except where the Treaties provide otherwise. The adoption of legislative acts shall be excluded. The common foreign and security policy shall be put into effect by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and by Member States, in accordance with the Treaties. The specific role of the European Parliament and of the Commission in this area is defined by the Treaties. The Court of Justice of the European Union shall not have jurisdiction with respect to these provisions, with the exception of its jurisdiction to monitor compliance with Article 25b of this Treaty and to review the legality of certain decisions as provided for by the second paragraph of Article 240a of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.“

While the strategic direction is discussed in the European Council by heads of state, the Council of the EU sits the Foreign Affairs Council, which is headed by the High Representative for CFSP, who is also vice-president of the Commission and head of the EEAS. The integration of these posts is meant to ensure consistent coordination. Outside the general case, Foreign Affairs Council is staffed with development/trade/defence ministers and has several working parties and committees. As the sittings take place within a day, they are prepared by COREPER, the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which in this case is in its II format, respectively the Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, which reside in and chair the Permanent Representations of each Member State in Brussels. Their positions reflect the national concerns formulated by each Foreign Affairs ministry, but in the end, as decisions are taken unanimously, the decisions are reached with consensus.

The executive coordination and execution of the CFSP happens in the EEAS, as well as the Directorate for Foreign Policy Instruments, situated in the European Commission, which is responsible, for example, for conceptualising the details of sanctions (freezing of assets, embargoes, etc.). While the European Commission’s DG for development cooperation implements projects on the ground, its delegations on spot (in this case Beijing) have two main branches – a political arm, which coordinates priorities horizontally with the government, as well as an economic arm, which implements communications and development projects. As foreign affairs are executed from an interdisciplinary perspective, DG Development Cooperation coordinates its geographical directorates with the EEAS and its sectoral – with the other DGs of the Commission. Staffing is strictly hierarchical, with Administrators having passed official selection tests being on the lead and contract agents engaged in secretarial, budget, coordination and policy work.

The European Parliament, marked by an obsession to enhance its own powers, has become a proprietor of traditional values and interests that represent EU’s normative aspirations, such as the protection of human rights and the environment, etc. Nevertheless, these are restricted to soft law and take the form of guiding principles for the Council or the target counterparts via e.g. resolutions (e.g. on 5G and Huawei). The Parliament’s consent is necessary for the conclusion of international agreements (e.g. trade and investment treaties, art. 218 TFEU), but cannot modify them. The expertise is in the secretariats of certain committees (e.g. INTA), which, together with political fractions, advise their members for voting in the committee, which precedes and has weight over the plenary votes in Strasbourg. The Parliament also co-decides with the Council on external financial instruments, implemented by the EEAS and the Commission. The sub-committees on defence and terrorism have a special permission regime – only MEPs, with access to information from other counterparts being only in the hands of group coordinators and rapporteurs.

The foundation of any legal formulation in the EU lies in the principle of inclusion. When it comes to internal policies with potential significance to third parties, formulation is lengthy process, but as a result also comprehensive. For example, as maritime transport into the EU would potentially become subject to emission auditing and be included in the overall market for emission certificates, a number of counterparts would have to be consulted, such as the logistics sector, labour unions, manufacturers, exporters of goods, as well as national ministries of trade, transport and environment of each Member State. Governments of entry points (Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland) of the Maritime Belt and Road might be in favour of scraping such a decision. Oftentimes, as the European Commission has the prerogative, under a mandate by the Council of the EU, over legislative initiative, it uses several tools at its disposal – open public consultations, where each interest party (ministries, think-tanks, academia, individual experts) can submit proposals, as well as a database of expert groups (oftentimes with partial to full academic career) for formulation and assessments – in order to achieve a balanced representation of all interests.

The coordination of such initiatives, esp. if inter-institutional or involving several directorates is done by the Commission secretariat, while the synthesis is done by policy officer/s in consultation with legal directorates. Each proposal is then discussed in the format of the so called comitology, where national experts and commission representatives further delineate the proposal. The parliament’s co-decision competences allow it to submit amendments of the draft legislation, which are oftentimes the result of coordination with the internal bodies (secretariats, political groups), but also formal (through meetings and positions submitted to parliamentary mails) and informal (through personal relations) lobbying. These result in amendments (sometimes reaching to several thousands), which are first discussed in the political groups, the relevant committee and then voted in Strasbourg plenary.

In non-legislative, strategic and interdisciplinary matters, important role plays also the event-based dissemination of expertise, where institutes (e.g. Mercator Institute for China Studies, Egmont Institute, Intituto Affari Internazionali) deliver their research, e.g. on the usage of AI for facial recognition and the credit system. These are often done in discussion with governmental counterparts from China, in the presence of MEPs participating in the EU-China delegation and the relevant parliamentary committee, as well as high-ranking commission officials responsible for the sectoral matter. In the case of EU’s connectivity strategy, after a mandate has been given by the Council, the EEAS reaches out to each foreign affairs ministry of each member state, which implements a procedure for formulation that, depending on the tradition in each country, is done internally, or in consultation with think-tanks (e.g. European Council on Foreign Relations), academia and sectoral ministries. As mentioned, the European Parliament has no formal competence to amend such a documents, but can exert influence through personal relations, as well as publicity.


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