• Marina Tovar Velasco

Coherence in the Union's External Action

From the three communities on the European Political Cooperation to achieving consistency in EU’s External Action

Credit photo: https://www.cer.eu/in-the-press/importance-european-foreign-and-security-policy

How does the European Union ensure that Member States and their institutions follow the same path when it comes to external action? The aim of this article is to understand how the foreign policy of the European Union has evolved around the establishment of a coherence marked by a single action by its institutions and member states. This contribution analyses how this concept has evolved from primary institutions to the present and how the introduction of new members has conditioned this marked evolution of complexity and divergent interests.

The beginnings: the European Political Cooperation

The European Political Cooperation (EPC) was introduced in the 1970s until it was surpassed by the Common Foreign & Security Policy (CFSP) in the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. The EPC was known to be a mechanism of diplomatic agreement with an intergovernmental base, flexible and pragmatic based in the Westphalian concepts of sovereignty and mutual respect. The main goals of the EPC were the creation and combination of three imaginary communities. The community of information aimed to share positions and information among the European Union (EU) Member States and develop the goals of cooperation through these practices. The community of vision aimed to share views and common positions regarding specific topics or events thus achieving a concentration of positions and following one same direction. Finally, the community of action aimed to act together as a single unit and thus, achieve coordination. The implementation of these three communities sought to provide the basis for the EU’s coherence in external action.

With the three reports issued by the Council we can observe the evolution of these three communities and its strengthening. Firstly, the Davignon Report (1970) outlines that through the establishment of the meetings of Ministers of Foreign Affairs twice a year and the creation of the political committee, a high-ranked civil servant institution in charge of coordination of meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council, will aim to establish this community of information where the exchange of information was expected. Furthermore, with the invitation of the President of the European Commission to the meetings of the EU Council and trying to achieve a passive coherence, we will see the beginnings of the community of vision.

However, with the appearance of the Copenhagen Report (1973) it will be proved that the Davignon Report was not integrating the necessary elements to fulfill the objective. The Copenhagen Report will bring a proposal for strengthening of the community of information. Through the increase of frequency of meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and the Political Committee (EPC), based on the aforementioned Report, it will attempt to reinforce the community of information. In addition, it included a request for the embassies of the Member States to be associated with the EPC, thus facilitating the elaboration of draft reports by EU diplomats for the Political Committees.

Nevertheless, it will not be until the London Report (1981) that the reinforcement of the community of vision and action would be acknowledged. In this sense, the Report introduces the need for a flexible and pragmatic approach. Finally, the EPC through its integration on the Single European Act (1987) under the Title III would impregnate its three communities through an institutionalization process. As a result, the Single European Act provided that “the High Contracting parties need to undertake, inform, and consult each other” (community of vision) “and through coordination the convergence of their positions” (community of vision) “and the implementation of joint actions” (community of action) (Eur-Lex, 1986).

What is coherence?

Coherence, often defined also as consistency, has been the main goal that the EU has pursued and even established in the European Political Cooperation. Despite that, coherence does not have a proper definition itself. What is true is that the lack of consistency displays ineffectiveness and lack of strategy and has a high cost of opportunity. According to Pol Morillas (2014), inconsistency appeared in the EPC due to six-months rotating presidencies and semestral plans in the European Council, joined with the lack of coherence between the institutions and among the institutions and the National Policies issued by the EU Member States.

Consistency can be defined by three pillars. Firstly, there is a need to achieve vertical dimension, thus, presenting a single voice, meaning that the 27 Foreign Policies and the External Action of the Union go hand in hand, putting this sphere in the strategic part. Secondly, the horizontal dimension related with the Common Security and Foreign Policy (CFSP) and the External Relations combining the strategic and the procedural matters by making sure that these two spheres go in the same direction and do not contradict each other. The third and last sphere is the internal one, within the CFSP and the External Action by assuring that the procedures and the internal dimensions of the policy follow the same direction, such as the voting mechanisms or the implementation.

The Lisbon Treaty: an institutional framework for developing coherence

Consistency in this sense is defined, acquiring a great role, in the Lisbon Treaty (2009), which defines the institutional framework of the decision-making process and the relevant actors, who are the ones in charge of assuring the consistency present in the treaties. The most relevant figure is the High Representative (HR/VP) of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, by having a triple function. The HR is one of the Vice-Presidents of the European Commission, who oversees the External Relations; it is the President or Chair of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and it is the High Representative for the CFSP. Thus, its main goal is to ensure consistency in the EU external action by linking different institutions, such as the European Parliament with the EU Council or the Commission and the EU Council, mediating if there is a non-agreement in the EU Council, taking the recommendations by the European Parliament and the EU Council. Thus, the HR/VP oversees the coordination of the institutional framework of the EU's external action.

Consistency is also displayed with the European External Action Service, created in 2011 to help the HR and guaranteeing coherence and visibility in the external action of the European Union (EU). Also, it gives support to the President of the Commission and the President of the European Council on its tasks. In this sense, these two figures are very relevant to the institutional skeleton.

It is also worth noting that consistency must be achieved not only by the role exercised by the HR/VP but also by the Member States in the European Council. Going back in time, the main goals of the European Political Cooperation were the Community of Information, Community of Vision, and the Community of Action. Finally, the external action is not only defined on an intergovernmental basis, but it also gives a great role to the institutions based in Brussels. Thus, what is known to be as “supranationalism intergovernmentalism” (Morillas, 2014) appears in the External Action, that includes an intergovernmental decision-taking in the CFSP opposed to a supranational external action and that results in a decision-making in which political institutions achieve higher protagonism.


Altogether, the evolution of European foreign policy has been marked by an evolution in its institutions and the centralization of a figure that includes several institutions, the High Representative (HR/VP) of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. In this sense, there is a need to achieve consistency, that the Member States, who are taking decisions on CFSP through unanimity, exchange information, reaching consensus on positions and act jointly giving this coherence to one of the dimensions of the external action. The imaginary communities have been transformed into a practical reality: consistency in foreign action achieved through the unification and planning of the foreign policy of the institutions and the individual member states. There are little areas pending to improve as because the different actions are defined on the treaties, a clear separation is defined. Furthermore, because each competence has its external dimension or action, institutionally consistency is specified on the founding treaties of the European Union. Thus, thanks to the clear establishment of actions in the treaties, this coherence can be achieved in determining which actions correspond to the institutions and which to the Member States. The long road traveled to carry this out shows that the Union is consistent not only in its monetary policy, the historical central axis, but also in all the other areas that make up foreign policy.


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Maastricht Treaty, TEU or Union Treaty: Treaty on European Union, 7 February 1992, 1992 O.J. (C191) 1, 31 I.L.M. 253

Morillas, P. (2014), “Capítulo III. Actores y procesos en la Política Exterior y de Seguridad Común” en Barbé, E. (dir.), La Unión Europea en las relaciones internacionales, Madrid: Tecnos, pp.59-81

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Treaty of Amsterdam Amending the TEU, the Treaties Establishing the European Communities and Certain Related Acts, 2 October 1997, 1997 O.J. (C340) 1, 37 I.L.M. 253

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