Coordination among EU member states within the framework of the European Political Cooperation (EPC) began in 1970. It consisted mainly of an exchange of information on foreign policy issues. The EPC was given a basis in international law through the Single European Act (SEA) in 1986, though security and defence policy were excluded.

The CFSP as we know it today was established and found its way into the European Treaties with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which entered into force in 1993. The Maastricht Treaty, according to its introductory provisions, marked a “new stage” in the process of creating the European Union. The EU member states unanimously agreed that such a (political) union could not be based solely on an integrated economic and monetary area and an internal market. Joint capacity for action on foreign and security policy issues was to be added. Thus provisions on common foreign and security policy (“second pillar”) and cooperation in the fields of justice and home affairs (“third pillar”) were included in the Treaty in addition to the “economic community” (“first pillar”). At that time, the “CFSP instruments” were “common positions” and “joint actions”.

Especially during the wars in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, it became obvious that the EU had little capacity for action. Against this background, a security and defence policy dimension was added to the “second pillar” in the Treaty of Amsterdam, which entered into force in 1999. Among other things, the so-called “Petersberg tasks” of the WEU were integrated into the Treaty on European Union (1. humanitarian and 2. rescue tasks, 3. peacekeeping tasks and 4. tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking), meaning that because it lacked its own crisis management instruments, the EU created the possibility of passing these tasks on to the Western European Union (WEU). The Treaty of Amsterdam also introduced the “common strategy” as a new CFSP instrument. The position of High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, serving simultaneously as the Secretary-General of the Council, was also created, an office held by Javier Solana of Spain from 1999 to 2009. He was supported by the Policy Planning and Early Warning Unit, a newly-created body within the General Secretariat. It was the High Representative’s responsibility to represent the common foreign and security policy of the EU and support each Presidency of the Council of the European Union in its contacts to third countries.

In the following years, the security and defence policy instruments of the EU were developed. An important step was Britain’s policy shift in giving up its reservations against a European crisis management component not integrated in NATO. This step was taken at the Franco-British summit in St Malo in 1998. With the Nice Treaty of 2000, which entered into force in 2001, the Treaties’ security and defence policy provisions were transformed into an independent policy, the so-called “European Security and Defence Policy” (ESDP). The EU thus fulfilled the institutional prerequisites to execute the “Petersberg tasks” on its own and conduct both civil and military crisis management. The instruments necessary for this were created, including the Political and Security Committee (PSC), the Military Committee (EUMC) and the Military Staff (EUMS), and the Politico-Military Group (PMG), but also the Committee for Civilian Aspects of Crisis Management (CIVCOM).

After the events of 11 September 2001 and the differences within the EU with regard to the Iraq crisis, the EU recognized the necessity of having a common strategy as the basis for the orientation of the CFSP. In December 2003, the EU Heads of State and Government adopted the European security strategy (ESS).

The Treaty of Lisbon (in force since 1 December 2009) brought significant reforms to CFSP structures, especially in respect to the role of the High Representative. The Treaty of Lisbon separated the High Representative from the structures of the General Secretariat of the Council. The European External Action Service (EEAS) was created under the High Representative as a new European Union institution. At the same time, the dual role of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is simultaneously Commissioner for External Action and Vice-President of the Commission, ensures a maximum of coherence in the European Union’s external action under one person coordinating the CFSP and external relations of the Commission. This strengthened the position of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy considerably, a position held by Baroness Catherine Ashton of Britain since November 2009.

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