Complex relations and where to find them

During the annual State of the Union address last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave a stark warning of the EU’s growing diplomatic distance to Turkey, a country which up to 2016 had been in decade-long discussions to join the bloc. In response to the ongoing intimidation attempts carried out by the Turkish state in EU waters, the Commission President reiterated the EU’s full support to Greece and Cyprus (the Member States geographically – and politically – closer to the escalations) and was clear in her stance that the bloc will not tolerate intimidation.

Only this weekend, the EU was caught up in another diplomacy issue with Turkey, when President Erdoğan criticised French President Macron saying he needs ‘mental treatment’ over his view of Islam. High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission, Josep Borrell, tweeted saying Erdoğan’s words were unacceptable and called on Turkey to “stop this dangerous spiral of confrontation”.


While Von der Leyen’s and Borrell’s words were strong and clear, no real action is likely to follow. The EU-Turkey border is far from the bloc’s economic belt, which greatly benefits from stable relations with its 5th largest trading partner, and the waves of confrontation in the East Mediterranean lose significance the further they travel towards Brussels, Paris or Berlin.

As the world’s largest trading bloc,  the EU wants to retain good relations in the Eastern Mediterranean – in an arrangement the EU defines as ”mutually beneficial” – but can it do so when the strategic interests of some of its Member States are being threatened?

As a fundamentally liberal-economic project, the EU seems to face a similar dilemma in each diplomatic hurdle it encounters – how can it rally its 27 capitals, all with different interests, around a strong, coordinated, and meaningful approach to foreign affairs? The EU is seen as a unique and powerful actor on the global stage and a leader in multilateralism. But the past few months have seen the EU battle with its own procedures to take action and influence foreign policy on multiple occasions. From Turkey, to Belarus, to developments in Hong Kong, EU leaders have had to make a series of decisions that will impact the EU’s list of friends and foes  – but were often unable to reach internal agreement on the way forward.

To sanction or not to sanction

Action in European diplomacy is known to be weak and convoluted as any decision ultimately needs the backing of every Member State under current procedures. It was only last month that the Cypriot government vetoed the imposition of sanctions on Belarusian officials. On 15th September, the EU released a statement declaring they did not recognise Alexander Lukashenko as the president of Belarus, as he was not considered to have been elected legitimately. Nevertheless, Cyprus objected against imposing the sanctions which meant the policy could not be passed, their decision was tactical to exert pressure of the EU to impose sanctions against Turkey, for illegal drilling in the Mediterranean’s territorial waters.  This action was a breach of Cypriot sovereignty that brings additional weight to the already complicated EU-Turkey relations.

Cyprus’ initial vote blocked sanctions against Belarus due to the EU’s unanimity voting procedure in the Council on Foreign Affairs, whereby all 27 Member States must fully agree to any action on diplomatic relations. Although there is a body within the EU responsible for maintaining diplomatic relations, the European Union External Action Service (EEAS), the main decision-making power in regard to foreign affairs matters lies with the Council.

Cyprus’ political strategy to block the vote, worked in their favour as Josep Borrell was willing to find a compromise that would make both sanctions possible to appease all Member States. Nonetheless, it seems this was to the detriment of the global view of the Union.

Qualified Majority Voting, the way forward?

Each Member State has its own set of issues, which makes agreement as a whole Union challenging. If the EU wants to be a more assertive actor in foreign policy, the unanimity vote does not seem to be fit for practice.

Von der Leyen addressed this issue in her State of the Union speech, when she called for the introduction of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) instead of unanimity voting due to many people being frustrated with the divisions amongst the Member States. QMV would be used when the Council votes on a proposal by the Commission of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It differs by allowing the proposal to be passed with 55% of the Member States vote in favour or alternatively being supported by Member States that represent at least 65% of the total EU population.

For the EU to achieve this, Members States would need to come to terms with a possible loss of – at least part of – their sovereignty.

The EU is unique on the world platform and has great potential to be a leader and set the example in upholding democracy and human rights. The complexity of interests at play among 27 different sovereign countries (with different economies, history, culture, strategies etc) calls for a comprehensive overview of the EU’s decision-making process and the role of Member States see reserved for the European Union in foreign relations. Reform in voting procedures could improve the EU’s ability to be a reliable, strong, and pragmatic voice on contentious issues.


The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients in the European Union, the UK and beyond. For more information on our work, please contact our Director of European Affairs, Viviana Spaghetti at