Aims and characteristics of the CFSP


The idea behind the European Union’s common foreign and security policy is as simple as it is convincing: only together can the Member States of the European Union make their weight felt internationally. The more unified and coherent the EU’s external action is, the greater its ability to act will be. The EU does not have a choice in the matter: its economic significance alone makes it an actor on the global stage. Strong and effective common foreign and security policy is key to being seen as more than an economic giant and to avoid being overlooked as a supposed political dwarf on this stage.

However, the common foreign and security policy is only part of the EU’s foreign relations. The entire spectrum of the EU’s external action extends far beyond the common foreign and security policy. This spectrum includes the pre accession process for candidate countries, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), foreign trade, and development policy – fields that largely fall within the EU Commission’s area of responsibility. The Lisbon Treaty represented a crucial step towards more coherence in the EU’s external action, creating as it did the dual role for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is simultaneously the Vice President of the Commission and the head of the European External Action Service (EEAS), consisting of civil servants from the Member States, the Commission, and the Council Secretariat.

According to the Treaty on European Union, the CFSP encompasses all areas of foreign and security policy. The civilian and military assets and capabilities of Common Security and Defence Policy are at its disposal. Common foreign and security policy is often concerned with preventing and dealing with crises as well as post conflict peacebuilding. This means that the CFSP agenda is unpredictable, being strongly determined by current foreign policy events. And it is very extensive: almost all the world’s foreign and security policy hotspots are dealt with within the framework of the CFSP. On the other hand, the field of crisis prevention includes long term commitment and planning. The new EU Delegations (EU missions abroad) provide a broader foundation for relations between the EU and third countries.

The CFSP, previously the EU’s “second pillar”, is regulated in Title V in Articles 21-46 of the Treaty on European Union. It has special characteristics, being conceived as “intergovernmental”, that is, not communitarized. With few exceptions (cf. Article 31 of the Treaty on European Union), the Member States decide unanimously concerning CFSP issues and the Union’s line on foreign and security policy. They are the executive power in the CFSP, so to speak. This is accomplished through decisions by the Foreign Affairs Council, which meets once a month, and the steering functions of the subordinate Political and Security Committee as well as in the Brussels working groups. Together with the European External Action Service, the High Representative prepares the decisions, puts them before the Council bodies, and then implements the policies decided on by the Foreign Ministers of the EU countries in the Council meetings, over which the High Representative presides. The Lisbon Treaty did not change anything about the intergovernmental character of the CFSP.

Compared with the communitarized policy fields (previously the first pillar), the Commission plays a limited role in the CFSP. It does not have the right of initiative, nor does it exercise significant executive powers. It can only “support” the High Representative on CFSP questions or initiatives referred to the Council (Article 30 of the Treaty on European Union). To achieve a maximum of coordination of the CFSP and the Commission’s areas of EU external action (European Neighbourhood Policy, the pre accession process, foreign trade, and development policy, among other things), the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is simultaneously the Vice-President of the Commission, ensuring coherence for the entirety of the EU’s external action.

The European Parliament (EP) must be informed of and consulted on CFSP issues (Articles 27 and 36 of the Treaty on European Union). Furthermore, the High Representative must “ensure that the views of the European Parliament are duly taken into consideration”. Twice a year the European Parliament is to hold a debate on progress in implementing the CFSP. Additionally, the Commission and the EP have a say in passing the CFSP and EEAS budgets and can to an extent influence the CFSP through the steering of funds, especially through the final decision making power of the European Parliament over the EU budget.

The CFSP has a much less legal character than the communitarized policy areas, and the corresponding legal processes have only a rudimentary form. The legal acts adopted by the Council within the framework of the CFSP are in principle not subject to review by the European Court of Justice.

The CFSP exists alongside the foreign policies of the individual EU Member States, which are, however, obliged to support the CFSP and refrain from any action which is contrary to its interests (cf. Article 24 of the Treaty on European Union).

The CFSP is not subject to any geographical limitations. It is guided by the values of democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law. Its goals are listed in Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union:

  • securing, promoting, and safeguarding the Union’s values, fundamental interests, security, independence and integrity;

  • securing and promoting the values mentioned above;

  • preserving peace, preventing conflicts and strengthening international security, in accordance with the United Nations Charter, the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris;

  • fostering sustainable economic, social and environmental development as well as eradicating poverty;

  • encouraging the integration of all countries into the world economy and the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade;

  • helping develop international measures to preserve the environment and to manage natural resources in a sustainable way, in order to ensure sustainable development;

  • disaster assistance; and

  • promoting an international system based on multilateral cooperation and good global governance.

Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)

Additional content

Top of page