What is multilateralism?

Multilateralism is the lifeblood of the European Union and the means to achieving global peace, stability and prosperity, the cornerstones of EU policy. The concept of multilateralism is, in its 'minimalist' definition, a minimum of three or more states working together to tackle common issues, such as trade, financial and economic instability, terrorism, or climate change. But multilateralism throughout history has not been easy to attain and even its relevance for modern global politics is complex. It is currently under intense debate in the academic and political communities.

How has multilateralism changed?

The last few centuries have seen many parts of the world emerge from colonial rule, partitioning the globe into a multitude of independent states. However, the emergence of the United Nations in 1945 sparked a growing trend towards the formation of regional and international institutions, set up to unite countries with common interests, thereby offering protection and strength to its members. Since then, such institutions have been multiplying and include a strong legal dimension: in the roughly 30 years after 1970, the number of international treaties more than tripled, leading to a significant increase (by about two-thirds) in international institutions.

Essentially, the world is moving from a system of states to a system of regions (ranging from ASEAN to AU or MERCOSUR) experiencing different levels of integration. These regions, of which the EU is the 'oldest' and deepest in terms of competence, have come to be major players in shaping modern politics. This is partly because many modern challenges are global in nature and therefore require global solutions.

From a size perspective, and given its supranational competences, the EU can be considered a key regional player and has pledged its commitment to multilateralism since its establishment, and more specifically, through the 2003 Security Strategy and the Lisbon Treaty. But just like any other multilateral actor, the EU’s practical understanding of multilateralism must continually adapt to accommodate the changing playing field. So the question is how successfully does the EU engage in, and promote, effective multilateralism? The answer requires an understanding of the challenges to be addressed 'multilaterally' as well as the dynamic relations between the EU’s internal and external policies and competences.

What are the challenges?

One of the main challenges facing EU policy makers is how to approach issues in a multilateral way while remaining loyal to EU values as well as economic and security interests. This has often been considered a question of priorities. The internal complexity of the EU, as a grouping of 27 Member States, can also make it very difficult to arrive at a common internal agreement to reflect externally in the form of foreign policy. Independent Member States naturally tend to prioritise solutions that protect their own interests.

As a regional power, the EU also has a significant opportunity to act fairly towards external regions and international organisations. However, the EU is also not the only multilateral actor in Europe. Many international organisations overlap, such as the EU, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations (UN), leading to an added level of complexity in tackling European and global issues.

So what’s new in 2012?

The MERCURY, EU-GRASP and EU4Seas projects represent three distinct, multidisciplinary initiatives funded by the EU’s 7th Framework Programme. Each project has its own sets of goals and methodologies, but the common denominator has been to explore and evaluate how effectively the EU delivers on its commitment to promote and engage in effective multilateralism (see Article 2 of this special issue).

A key aspect of all three projects has been to provide clear messages to policy makers, as well as to contribute to the academic understanding of multilateralism. In addition to the individual findings of each project, as described in Article 3 of this special issue, the researchers of all three projects propose a set of joint policy recommendations (Article 4). In a future-oriented perspective, the final article (Article 5) looks in more detail at the changing face of multilateralism and the challenges and opportunities this presents for the EU.