Multilateralism and the EU

The EU has been championing multilateralism in areas ranging from climate change to security and trade, and such commitment is also enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty. It is therefore necessary that the EU evaluates its successes and failures, past and present, in order to be an effective global multilateral player now and in the future. With this in mind, the MERCURY, EU-GRASP and EU4Seas projects each assessed a different aspect of the EU’s contribution to multilateralism, each drawing on a multidisciplinary spectrum of law, economics, international relations and political science.

The objective of the MERCURY project was to explore the conceptual and historical understanding of multilateralism and to ask specifically how successfully the EU has engaged in international multilateral efforts over the last ten years. An open-access database of EU legal instruments in external policy fields (DATEX) was developed in this regard.

An important aspect of this was to look at how the internal organisation and legal framework of the EU can help or hinder its effectiveness in dealing with external partners. The MERCURY researchers, a consortium of academics from Europe, China and South Africa, looked specifically at EU relations with African and Asian partners in relation to trade, national security and environmental policies.

The EU-GRASP project complemented the goals of MERCURY by identifying the lessons that can be learned from past and present experiences of multilateralism (global, regional and inter-regional), to develop a forward looking perspective for strengthening the role of the EU as a multilateral actor in peace and security.

The EU-GRASP researchers – coming from various European countries, as well as Canada, China, Israel and South Africa - analysed close to 30 case study areas, with specific reference to peace and security issues. This incorporated three ‘traditional’ security issues: conflict resolution, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, and three issues that have become ‘securitised’ (accorded security status) more recently: migration, energy security and climate change, and severe human rights abuses.

The question the researchers asked was how successful has the EU been in working together with other global actors to deal with each security issue. The EU-GRASP researchers also looked, in detail, at how the concept of multilateralism is evolving and what this means for the changing role of the EU in the future.

While the main policy objectives of MERCURY and EU-GRASP were to assess how effective the EU is in engaging in external multilateralism, the complementary objective of EU4Seas was to evaluate how effective the EU is in promoting multilateralism within itself and its close neighbours in Europe.

The researchers focused on a particular form of multilateralism, known as ‘sub-regionalism’. This is the cooperation between geographically or politically linked countries that form a subset of a larger regional space, in this case Europe. Many European sub-regions emerged in the 1990s in response to common challenges faced by neighbouring nations after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, marking the end of the Cold War. The primary research question for the EU4Seas researchers was how has EU policy reinforced or hindered the formation, stability and influence of these smaller forms of multilateral cooperation within Europe and neighbouring countries.

The EU4Seas team, comprising eight partners from Estonia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Iceland, Italy and France, selected four sub-regions centred on closed seas; the Baltic, Black, Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. Closed seas provide an interesting context as the presence of a common interest or resource can prove a unifying factor or, at the other extreme, the cause of political tensions between bordering states.

In each sub-region, the researchers evaluated the extent and effectiveness of sub-regional cooperation across four key policy areas: energy and transport, politics and security, the four freedoms (movement of people, goods, services and capital) and environment and maritime issues.

The question of how effectively the EU deals with pre-existing and emerging multilateral networks inside Europe and on its periphery is critical to how confidently the EU projects itself to external partners. This is an important connection between the three projects. Specifically, whether sub-regional multilateralism within Europe is a source of stability or instability can help understand the strengths and weaknesses of the EU’s participation as a single actor on a global stage, which are, in turn, the aims of the MERCURY and EU-GRASP projects.