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HomeGeopolitical CompassEurope, Russia, OceaniaThe EU and the Invasion of Ukraine: A Collective Responsibility to Act?

The EU and the Invasion of Ukraine: A Collective Responsibility to Act?

Authors: Heidi Maurer, Richard G Whitman, Nicholas Wright 

Affiliation: Researcher at the e-governance department of the Danube University Krems and a Visiting Professor in European Diplomacy at the College of Europe in Bruges, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, Visiting Researcher in the Centre for Britain in Europe at the University of Surrey (respectively)

Organization: International Affairs 

Date/place: January 9, 2023/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 20 


Keywords: EU Foreign Policy, Ukraine-Russian Conflict, EU CFSP/CSDP


The European Political Cooperation (EPC) has received criticism for its limited responses, particularly in military crisis management, despite over 50 years of member state cooperation on foreign policy. It also raises the question of what has changed since the “hour of Europe” during the dissolution of Yugoslavia almost 30 years ago, which was considered a low point in collective foreign policy. The capacity of EU member states to act collectively in foreign policy is important, and recent developments should be viewed as a reassessment of reality rather than a major shift. The challenges faced by the EU in foreign policy highlight the progress made since 1970 and the complex system of actors and levels involved in EU foreign policy.


The way the EU reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 showcases the capability of its foreign policy system to implement effective and significant collective diplomacy. The EU imposed sanctions on trade, finance, and individuals and implemented financial aid measures, including support for refugees and a €2.5 billion financial package for the Ukrainian military through the European Peace Facility (EPF). The invasion of Ukraine has caused EU leaders to reconsider Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and to enhance defense capabilities. The EU’s response to the invasion has been described as a “geopolitical awakening” and a “paradigm shift” by EU leaders. Finland and Sweden have made significant changes to their defense postures and applied to join NATO, while over half of EU member states have committed to supplying Ukraine with military equipment. Ukraine is also beginning the process of becoming a candidate for EU membership. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a significant change in the willingness of EU member states to take action in response to a major disturbance to Europe’s security framework. While member states have expressed support for collective security and defense, there have been criticisms of inefficiency and insufficient military strength in EU foreign policy efforts. Despite these challenges, member states continue to invest significant resources into EU foreign policy-making. The author of this article seeks to address why the EU’s foreign policy system persists and what can be learned from its response to the invasion of Ukraine.


The EU’s foreign policy system has progressed due to the development of a shared norm of collective European responsibility to act, which has been fostered by fifty years of EU foreign policy cooperation. The author suggests that this norm has been a motivator for advancing European foreign policy ambition and implementation, and that member states’ comprehension and pursuit of collective endeavors in this area continue to evolve. The establishment of regular and intense trans-governmental relationships among member states has created a sense of collective responsibility and a norm. This norm helps to explain the continuing existence of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). It is important to examine and research the collective European responsibility to act norm empirically and to understand European foreign policy identity in today’s context. This norm transforms some of the concerns of EU foreign policy studies, and as such, it is necessary to explore why the EU foreign policy system has persisted despite criticisms and why member states still collaborate on foreign and security policy and support the EU foreign policy cooperation system.


The article argues that the persistence of EU foreign policy cooperation is not only due to the development of institutional frameworks but also a collective norm of European responsibility to act. The decision-making mechanisms for the EU’s foreign and security policy are trans-governmental, and this distinction allows member states to be in charge but supported by EU mechanisms. Being a member of the EU is crucial in this trans-governmental system as it influences states to act differently from how they operate in other multilateral contexts. Despite various challenges and criticisms, the EU foreign policy cooperation system has persisted due to the collective European responsibility to act, which is a constantly evolving norm. This norm creates a sense of obligation among member states to act collectively, which reduces differences in perspective and minimizes uncoordinated foreign policy actions. The authors acknowledge that their argument may appear contradictory due to the widespread criticism of the EU’s foreign policy. However, they aim to clarify why member states persist in the system despite its frequent suboptimal outcomes. They propose that the collective responsibility norm is the key to understanding this apparent contradiction and that it is a fundamental component of the development of EU foreign defense and security policy cooperation from its origins in the EPC. Rather than focusing on the shared results of EU foreign policy, the authors emphasize the shared purpose that characterizes cooperation.


Hence, the question the author raises is why member states still participate in European foreign policy cooperation despite its shortcomings. The liberal intergovernmentalist perspective does not fully explain why member states continue to invest in the system, as it only focuses on the benefits of larger and smaller states. It does not account for the substantial effort and policymaking activity necessary for the system to function. The authors propose that the concept of collective European responsibility can shed light on why member states continue to participate in the EU foreign policy system despite its shortcomings. They draw on the legacy of Europeanization and the idea of a ‘community of practice’ to explain how internalizing EU membership affects national identity and the feeling of being part of a larger political collective. However, they also acknowledge that the focus on socialization processes within the EU foreign policy system does not directly address why the system persists. The authors suggest that while the concept of “political community” is an important one in European integration studies, it has not been fully explored in the context of CFSP/CSDP scholarship, which has tended to focus more on practices and outcomes. Therefore, they propose the concept of collective responsibility to help fill this gap and provide a new framework for understanding European foreign policy cooperation.


The norm of ‘collective European responsibility to act’ implies working together to implement foreign policy decisions using national and collective EU resources, despite member states having different opinions on certain decisions. This model is reinforced by continuous exchanges among member states, reminding them that foreign policy is a shared effort and encouraging coordination before taking a position. The ‘coordination flex’ is a commonly referenced aspect of this cooperation, where member states tend to coordinate with each other before taking a position. The EU’s collective responsibility to act is unique in that it is not a formal treaty obligation but rather a norm that has developed through interactions among member states. This norm has influenced member states to take actions that they might not have otherwise considered, due to the shared sense of responsibility and the benefits of working together within the EU foreign policy system. This distinguishes the EU’s approach from other international organizations like NATO, where collective action is typically based on formal treaty obligations.

The authors base their description of the collective European responsibility to act on three unique characteristics of the European foreign policy system. The first is the emphasis on the concept of collective responsibility, which is essential to the highest degree of integration achievable in the CFSP, fostering a sense of unity among member states and shaping their worldview and foreign policy approaches. It is not just a commitment to broader goals but emphasizes the importance of collective action beyond what single member states would usually regard within their national grounds. Collective responsibility embodies the founding values and principles underlying the EU’s mission, including peace, democracy, the rule of law, international law, and human rights. It is directed toward the EU collective and sets the criterion for suitable conduct for actors with a given identity, both internally and externally. The second distinguishing quality of the EU’s foreign policy framework is its dynamism. The norm of collective responsibility is continually evolving, and this evolution is an essential aspect of the system. The concept of systemic interactivity is critical to understanding the development of EU foreign policy. The authors argue that the CFSP has grown more organic from its intergovernmental and transactional roots due to the norm of collective responsibility. They suggest that the “norm lifecycles” proposed by Finnemore and Sikkink are useful in understanding how norms develop through norm entrepreneurs, cascade, and internalization, and that collective responsibility is crucial to understanding the CFSP, even though it has been ignored in the past. The third distinctive characteristic of the European foreign policy system, as defined by the authors, is its character as a collective system. This means that particular groups and individuals within the system exhibit more allegiance to the central political institutions of the EU than to any other political power, as per Haas’s definition of a political community. This results in a shift in loyalty from one degree to another.


Collective responsibility has developed a complex network that connects member states more closely and blurs the lines between national and CFSP loyalties. This has resulted in a collective system, rather than a community-based system, where member states can create results greater than the sum of their individual contributions. As a result, the standard of collective responsibility captures the shift in member states’ perspectives on the types of actions required in international affairs. The authors argue that the EU’s collective foreign policy is both an obligation that each member state has as part of this collective and an opportunity for member states to pursue their interests. Within the framework of the CFSP/CSDP, the EU member states collectively agree on taking action. However, it is up to each individual member state to choose how they will carry out these decisions through their national means. The concept of collective responsibility implies that member states can work towards the same collective objective while pursuing separate results at the national level.


The aim of the CFSP was never to substitute the foreign policies of member states but to provide a platform for them to work collectively towards a common goal. By adopting a relational perspective, we can understand how membership in a collective instills a sense of responsibility towards that collective while also recognizing the importance of maintaining differences among member states. Member states are obligated to give priority either to their own national interests or to the collective interests of the EU. However, being part of a collective has an effect on how member states perceive the world and how they behave within the collective. The significance of the collective European responsibility lies in the fact that membership in the foreign policy collective prompts member states to consider not only their own national interests but also the interests of the collective as a whole.


In 2022, a shared objective emerged among member states of the EU, with all countries working together to assist Ukraine in defending itself, even though the results may have varied for each member state. This shared purpose was noteworthy because it was evident that each member state would face different outcomes as a result of their involvement, as was apparent in the sanctions packages that were agreed upon. The concept of collective responsibility in EU foreign policy emphasizes the importance of cooperation among member states, despite their national differences. This creates a sense of urgency and importance among member states to prioritize collective thinking and action, in line with the EU’s purpose. It also creates a sense of obligation for all member states to take action, even if they may not have done so on their own. The impact of the collective responsibility norm varies over time, depending on the situation, as the policy system is dynamic. Even if smaller states may not have considered taking a strong stance against a powerful actor like Russia within their national context, being part of the EU collective makes them view their collective role differently. The impact of the collective responsibility to act norm is not constant and varies over time. This is because the policy system is dynamic, and its effects can be different depending on the situation.


For a long time, there has been a close connection between foreign and defense policy when evaluating the EU as a global player, specifically in terms of its abilities, eagerness to take action, and its desired global influence. It is not surprising that there is a strong connection between foreign and defense policy in evaluations of the EU’s role as an international actor. This is because member states attempted, but were unsuccessful, in creating cooperation in these areas early on in the integration process, alongside their economic cooperation. When foreign policy cooperation was finally established through the EPC, defense was particularly excluded from its scope. The lack of a robust defense component in the CFSP, which evolved from the EPC, has been viewed as a significant flaw. Some argue that without a substantial military capacity, the EU will never be able to exert the level of international influence or ambition that is proportionate to its economic power, comparable to countries like the US and China. The approach of analyzing foreign policy cooperation and defense integration separately enables a more nuanced examination of each area. This approach can shed light on how membership in the EU affects the defense strategies of member states. By focusing on this, the analysis can move away from the limitations of the EU in the area of defense and instead examine how member states have developed a unique approach to defense and security. This approach includes not only the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) but also other initiatives like the European Defense Agency, European Defense Fund, and the European Peace Facility.


The Ukraine crisis of 2022 showcased the EU’s shared sense of purpose, as all member states agreed on the need for a quick and forceful response. The EU did not consider military involvement, as that was seen as NATO’s responsibility. Instead, the EU acted as a platform for member states to discuss and coordinate collective responses, leading to innovative policy approaches. Along with comprehensive sanctions, the EU also utilized the EPF, which provided significant financial support to Ukraine’s armed forces. Academic literature on EU foreign policy often assumes that larger and wealthier member states have greater influence over policymaking, leading to a focus on Germany and France as dominant actors. However, research challenges this notion by highlighting the role of “small states” in shaping EU policy, including foreign policy. Negotiating strategy, persuasive arguments, expertise, and investments are crucial in achieving policy outcomes, and the collective responsibility to act means that larger member states work together towards shared goals rather than seeking dominance. The perspective of a collective responsibility to act emphasizes the importance of member states’ willingness to actively encourage and advance European foreign policy action, rather than measuring leadership capacity based solely on size. This approach highlights leadership that arises from a commitment to collective action, as seen in the Polish-Swedish leadership in developing the “Eastern Partnership” of the European Neighborhood Policy. Smaller member states neighboring Russia have played a significant role in responding to the crisis by providing refuge to refugees, offering military aid, and shaping the EU’s collective response, despite their relatively smaller size. They have also led diplomatic efforts, with Poland and its Baltic neighbors taking the lead in developing various EU responses related to refugees and other issues.


The EU’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed flaws in traditional approaches to EU foreign policymaking, necessitating a reevaluation of those approaches. Constructivist and Europeanization research suggest that a critical standard has developed over 50 years of foreign policy collaboration — the shared responsibility to take action collectively as part of the European Union. This highlights the need for new ideas and strategies in EU foreign policymaking going forward. The crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s invasion have had a profound impact on EU foreign policy. Unlike previous conflicts, the situation demands a collective responsibility to act due to Russia’s violation of European security. The EU’s response has had to cover a broad range of policy areas due to Russia’s significant links to EU member states’ economies, societies, and security. The crisis has affected the functioning of the EU as a political community, leading to a significant response from member states and emphasizing the necessity of a joint and collective reaction to counter Putin’s regime.


By: Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern



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