Clarifying the EU’s external role in a multi-polar world

One of the key challenges faced by the European Union in its external relations is the extent to which it can act in a coordinated way towards third countries and global networks. The GR:EEN research project seeks to clarify, at a time of rapid change in the global order, whether and why Member States wish to act separately, or in concert, in their relations with external partners. The project’s analysis focuses on the extent of EU power, and its recognition and legitimacy to act in three key areas: human rights and security, energy and the environment, and trade and finance.

Current and future challenges facing the EU include the ongoing financial crisis, climate change and shifts in the energy market, and the emergence of new centres of power in a multi-polar world. The response to these challenges has often been issue-based, with networks forming according to the challenge in question. The main aim of this four-year project is to uncover the part that European insights can play in securing reform and innovation in the changing global order.

While networks within Europe have been well-researched, there has until now been a lack of analysis on networks that cross EU boundaries. GR:EEN is unusual in that it involves as many non-EU partners as EU ones, including institutions from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, China, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United Nations University (UNU-CRIS) in Belgium and the USA.

As part of its stock-taking analysis, GR:EEN has come up with the innovative concept of case-study integrated fora, where an issue is formulated by stakeholder communities, researched, and the findings brought back to ensure learning is successfully embedded. Knowledge and evidence from these fora is shared at executive briefings, which bring together academics and researchers, international policy experts and practitioners, the business community and civil society to discuss matters of concern.

Executive briefings have so far been conducted on ‘The EU and the Arab Spring’ and ‘EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in a Multi-polar World’

The EU and the Arab Spring

This briefing found a lack of unity and coherence in EU policy towards the Middle-East. The Arab Spring was viewed by participants as the beginning of a long-term process of change. Other transformations in this region include the expansion of influence of regional players such as Turkey and the Gulf monarchies. The group emphasised the importance of continuing to research and monitor the situation on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa

EU Common Foreign and Security Policy in a Multi-polar World

This briefing highlighted divisions between Member States when devising a common European foreign policy response. For example, there was no common EU position on the human rights situation in the Ukraine in the run-up to the Euro 2012 Football Championships. Participants also believed that the EU’s financial crisis affects its image in the world, and that within this context it is paramount for Member States, and especially members of the Eurozone, to tackle the underlying causes at the origin of the debt crisis

A key message from GR:EEN’s research is that new global networks have emerged as a reaction to real, and perceived, failings in the ability of formal international organisations to take forward collective problem-solving under conditions of increasingly complex interdependence in international relations. For example, China is promoting changes to the interpretation of norms underpinning the concept of human rights, which were previously defined by the West, in international fora such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission/Council.

Other initial findings from GR:EEN include:

  • The importance, in understanding potential poles of global influence, of examining how so-called ‘intermediate’ countries respond, such as Australia, Japan, Singapore and Argentina. These countries are thought of as natural allies of the West, but may feel pulled both ways if they are next to regional powerhouses.
  • Countries like Australia and Brazil are performing well economically, despite the global recession, due to their relations with China.
  • There is a mismatch between the EU’s view of itself as a global actor, and the views of those outside the EU.
  • The EU should not underestimate the impact of the financial crisis on the views of people outside the region.
  • There is a lack of clarity externally about what the EU’s role is in global affairs and which body represents it. Externally there are perceived to be multiple sites of authority or technical competence within the EU depending on the issue under discussion.
  • There is a need to re-establish credibility as external expectations of the EU's foreign and security policy are not necessarily being met. Efforts are needed to interact with the next generation of decision-makers involved in the Arab Spring.
  • Member States still tend to prioritise their national interest in their relations with major and emerging powers acting, at times, in competition with each other.

One of the major outputs of the GR:EEN project will be a participatory foresight exercise within the time horizon of 2020, focusing on changing socio-economic and political relationships between the EU and the world. The foresight exercise is helping to develop visions of the future and design pathways towards these visions to improve regional and global cooperation policies. Indirect effects include better-informed decisions, generation of broader consensus, promotion of strategic and long-term thinking, and the accumulation of policy-relevant knowledge.

The GR:EEN researchers start from the assumption that while multi-polarity, with Europe as one pole, is a possible outcome of changes in global power, two alternative scenarios may include either a shift from a trans-Atlantic to a trans-Pacific locus of power, or depolarisation and fragmentation of authority. Both of these scenarios could marginalise Europe, and they are thus subjects that require further study.

GR:EEN – Global re-ordering: Evolution through European networks (duration: 1/3/2011 – 28/2/2014). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 4, “Europe and the World”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: (project website); (video library)

Contact: Laura Downey,