Main Findings: Obstacles and opportunities


In general terms, the EU does not follow a uniform approach to multilateralism. Many different strategies have been employed, depending on the actors involved and the specific policy issue.

Overall the EU’s foreign and security policies have been characterised by significant multilateral approaches. The number of joint actions with a multilateral legal basis has been significantly higher than the number for which multilateral implementation was foreseen. This suggests that the EU is more active in taking account and strengthening international law than in pooling resources with other international actors.

EU trade policy has maintained a very strong, unified position within multilateral fora, such as the World Trade Organisation. However, the EU has been criticised for acting less normatively than it should with respect to externalising its internal market-related policies, for example by possessing the power to impose a partial or complete cease in trading in order to coerce states into changing regulatory standards. On the other hand, it is also argued that the role of the EU as a ‘market power’ may be its most effective tool in creating multilateral partnerships.

The main findings of the MERCURY project are published in peer-reviewed e-papers and policy briefs, available to download from The open-access DATEX database on EU legal instruments in external policy fields is also available from:


As part of the EU-GRASP research, a series of in-depth mapping studies explored the current state of EU bilateral relations (i.e. with China, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia and Afghanistan), region-to-region relations (with Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Mediterranean) and global relations (i.e. with the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the International Criminal Court (ICC)). These served as inroads to deeper analysis within the EU-GRASP project from which the following conclusions were formulated:

  • The concept and the practice of multilateralism are undergoing a profound set of changes towards a more ‘open’ system, referred to as 'Multilateralism 2.0' and characterised by cooperation between many different types of actor (regional, national, sub-regional and non-governmental).
  • There has been a shift in the number and type of issues that are classed as security issues, to include environmental as well as social issues, (e.g. migration, food security and climate change). Some security threats also present opportunities for social and technological development, such as global climate change, food production, cyber security and international migration.
  • Framing foreign policy around security can skew the implementation of other EU policies, such as development and aid policy, which has appeared inconsistent at times.
  • The EU has struggled to unify Member States over foreign policy towards weapons of mass destruction, a particularly difficult issue for the EU.

EU-GRASP has output 35 peer-reviewed papers and policy briefs, and two special issues in academic journals. These and the series of mapping studies mentioned above are all available to download from:


Sub-regionalism and multilateralism have the potential to mutually reinforce or weaken each other. The strengthening and unifying impact of internal cooperation can only serve to increase the power and legitimacy of the EU on the world stage. However, failing to promote effective sub-regionalism is likely to undermine its credibility as a global multilateral player in the eyes of other international actors.

  • EU policies have a mixed record, sometimes strengthening and other times weakening smaller forms of cooperation within European sub-regions. In some cases, the EU has achieved its aim of promoting sub-regional cooperation by financially supporting the institutions that keep sub-regional entities alive. For example, the Baltic Sea cooperation has helped the European integration of Poland and the Baltic states. However, in the Mediterranean and the Caspian Seas, EU policies promoting sub-regional cooperation have been unsuccessful in overcoming legal disagreements and internal conflict.
  • In some other cases, EU enlargement and neighbourhood policies have made sub-regional cooperation harder, not easier. For example, the step-by-step inclusion of formerly peripheral countries into the EU, has physically divided some sub-regions, restricting free movement and creating political tensions between, for example, Russia and the rest of the Baltic Sea sub-region. Therefore, despite efforts to promote sub-regionalism as a cohesive influence, the external boundary of the EU has become a major divisive factor in Europe.
  • The attraction of joining the EU and the commitment to complying with EU policies tends to outweigh loyalties towards a nation’s direct neighbours. Sub-regional cooperation tends to falter as a result, no longer playing a part in political decision-making.

The interviews from more than 40 countries that make up the EU4Seas dataset are freely available from: A number of project reports, newsletters and other dissemination materials are also available to download.