General guidelines and strategic lines defined by the European Council: As the member states’ supreme decision-making body, the European Council determines the Union’s strategic objectives and general guidelines for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and other areas (cf. Article 26 of the Treaty on European Union). The European Council’s decisions on the strategic objectives and interests always need to be unanimous. They are not binding under international law, but they are “politically” binding on the member states. Implementation is the responsibility of the Foreign Affairs Council.

Decisions taken by the Foreign Affairs Council: The Foreign Affairs Council adopts legal instruments in the form of Decisions of the Council, which, in accordance with Article 25 of the Treaty on European Union, establish actions to be undertaken by the EU (e.g. CFSP missions) as well as positions to be adopted by the EU (e.g. imposing restrictive measures on a particular country). Other potential decisions may address arrangements for the implementation of decisions concerning actions or positions, or they may be decisions on Council conclusions.

Before the Treaty of Lisbon, there used to be a clear distinction between the Council’s two most important types of decision, the Joint Action and the Common Position. The Treaty of Lisbon has removed this difference, with every decision now called a Decision of the Council.

Council conclusions

Council conclusions on CFSP topics can be adopted by the European Council and by the Foreign Affairs Council. They constitute an important element of the EU’s activities, intended to formally present the EU’s stance on politically highly significant issues, crisis situations or conflicts and primarily to send out political signals, messages or calls for action in a concise form. In part because they are referred to – sometimes years later – as a record of positions held by the EU, Council conclusions carry more expressive weight than declarations and statements.

Most of the decisions on CFSP issues are adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council. The European Council only takes action when an especially strong political signal is to be sent. In such cases, the European Council’s conclusions usually include policy guidelines for the Foreign Affairs Council. (For example, when the UN Security Council had adopted Resolution 1929 concerning sanctions to be imposed on Iran, the European Council decided on the implementation and tightening of those sanctions at the EU level and tasked the Foreign Affairs Council with adopting the relevant restrictive-measures decision.)

Restrictive measures (sanctions)

In pursuit of its political objectives, the EU is increasingly making use of restrictive measures, or sanctions, which it imposes principally on representatives of particular non-EU countries’ governments but also on state enterprises and other legal and natural persons. Restrictive measures need to be adopted by the Council as part of CFSP, and they must fit in with the objectives of the CFSP defined in Article 24 of the Treaty on European Union. A distinction is drawn here between sanctions which the EU adopts autonomously and those which it is obliged to adopt on the basis of a UN Security Council resolution. Packages of sanctions are often a mixture of the two, with the EU adopting a decision to implement existing UN sanctions and going beyond them by adding its own lists.

A summary of all the EU sanctions regimes currently in place, plus a list of all the people and entities whose accounts have been frozen, can be found on the European External Action Service website:


Statements and declarations

The EU’s further instruments for action include statements and declarations, which are also made at the European Council and Foreign Affairs Council levels. They can be split into four types:

HR Declarations on behalf of the EU: Before publishing any declaration of this sort, the High Representative needs to have agreed it with all the EU member states. A declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU is usually issued in cases where an immediate reaction is not essential or a new situation makes it necessary first to work out the EU position or adapt established EU stances.

HR Statements: The High Representative issues statements on her own behalf when there is a need for a swift response to an event or a particular situation and not enough time to liaise with the 27 member states. The High Representative sometimes forgoes coordination among the member states when there is an established standard response. Either way, the statement must chime with the agreed EU positions.

Statements by the Spokesperson of the HR: If the event in question is not sufficiently significant to warrant the High Representative’s personal response, the HR statement may be replaced with a statement by her spokesperson.

Local EU Statements: This form of statement can be used when an event is only of local or regional significance, making a statement from Brussels appear superfluous.


The EU’s diplomatic activities within the CFSP also include EU demarches. They are carried out on the basis of instructions from the High Representative by the EU delegation present in the relevant host country (or, if there is no EU delegation on location, by a member state in its capacity as local representative of the Presidency). Agreement on such demarches is usually reached in the relevant Council Working Party and sometimes in the Political and Security Committee or even the Council.

Political dialogue

As part of the CFSP, political dialogue with non-member states (and groups of states) has developed into an important instrument for exchanging information and strengthening cooperation as a means of influencing the dialogue partners’ behaviour and actions. The foundations and institutional framework for political dialogue are established in agreements (e.g. association, partnership or cooperation agreements), joint declarations or exchanges of letters.

Political dialogue is conducted at various levels:

  • heads of state and government
  • foreign ministers
  • senior officials (political directors, their deputies or regional directors)
  • experts (heads of unit/member states’ and the Commission’s representatives on the working groups)

At the heads of state and government level, the EU is represented by the President of the European Council; at foreign ministers level, the High Representative takes on that role.

EU Special Representatives

On a proposal from the High Representative, the Council may appoint EU special representatives with a mandate in relation to particular policy issues in accordance with Article 33 of the Treaty on European Union. The Decision of the Council may be passed with a qualified majority. (N.B. This is one of the few exceptions to the principle of unanimity in the CFSP; cf. Article 31(2) of the Treaty on European Union.) In some cases, the role of the special representative is amalgamated with that of the head of the local EU delegation.

The special representatives carry out their mandates under the authority of the High Representative. The Political and Security Committee (PSC) maintains close connections with the special representatives and constitutes their most important point of contact in relation to the member states. The special representatives report to the High Representative and the PSC but may also give presentations in the relevant regional working groups. They furthermore maintain ties with other important global and regional players on the grounds.

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