Omar Serrano on the Domestic Sources of European Foreign Policy
(Omar Serrano is a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Lucerne. He is currently a visiting scholar at IU Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business (RCCPB) in Beijing China.)
Q: You have published a book titled “The Domestic Sources of European Foreign Policy:Defence and Enlargement”. Can you please say a few words about it?
A: The book looks at how political and economic events that occur in the Member States of the European Union (MS) affect how they cooperate in making common policies. The focus of the book is on defence and enlargement policies, but the same framework could be applied to other areas such as trade, the common currency, or other foreign policy areas. So for example, how a political crisis, economic troubles, public opinion, or elections may affect whether a Member State decides to send personnel to a conflict area or not; or whether the opposition of public opinion and political parties might lead to certain MS blocking the accession of new members such as Turkey.
Perhaps the most interesting conclusion of the book is the dynamic nature of the influence of domestic actors given that public opinion might change quickly, elections bring new political parties to power, and political and economic crises may rapidly change the policies of a given MS. When several MS change their priorities, this may lead to significant shifts in EU foreign policies.
Q: Can you please offer an example which can prove the interactions between the EU elites and the general public of the EU on the EU’s policy towards China?
A: The book’s main focus is on defence and enlargement, however it is not hard to identify the influence of domestic actors on other issues, such as EU policies towards China. A recent and interesting example is the dispute on solar panels. European firms (the EU is the biggest solar energy market in the world and many firms are involved in the installation and expansion of solar energy) strongly lobbied against the Commission’s plans to impose steep tariffs to Chinese solar panels (on the other hand, SolarWorld a German company was behind the ProSun coalition supporting the Commission). This shows the influence of business groups, but also of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which also opposed the Commission. NGOs were concerned that the imposition of tariffs could raise prices for solar energy and hence threaten EU emission-reduction targets.
More generally, political parties are also likely to have divergent positions towards China related policies (they are very influential in other policy-areas such as enlargement). If this is the case, the composition of governments in the MS matters for Sino-European relations.
Finally, public opinion does not seem to play (yet) a very strong role. However, this may change rapidly as occurred in other areas that are now highly politicized (such as enlargement or the common currency, the Euro). If China and the EU were to start negotiations on a free trade agreement (as is likely to happen in the near future) I would expect public opinion to become much more active.
However, as the book shows, public opinion needs to be mobilized for it to have an effect on EU policies. In most recent cases, the most important actors mobilizing public opinion in the EU have been radical right parties. However, it is also likely that NGOs and labour unions would try to mobilize public opinion on environmental, labour and human rights concerns (as occurred during the US-Mexico NAFTA negotiations).
Q: On the one hand, the EU has the so-called “democracy deficit”; on the other, the general public plays a big role in influencing the EU’s foreign policy decision-making. How would you comment on this seemingly paradox?
A: Indeed at first impression this seems paradoxical, but a closer examination shows that the paradox is really an issue of timing. Given that EU policy-makers have to react fast to happenings in the world (or in the region) one might assume that they are not constrained by the general public and hence that a democratic deficit exists. However, as the book shows this is only the case in the short term.
Eventually, if public preferences are against a given policy, political entrepreneurs will take advantage of it and use it as a platform to win votes. Over time their electoral success will lead other parties to change their positions (as happened for example in France during the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy) or be forced to build formal or informal coalitions with these parties to be able to govern (as occurred in countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark). If several Member States change their positions this might lead to dramatic policy-shifts, such as the freezing of accession negotiations with Turkey.
To put it another way, the democratic deficit can only exist in the short term; on the long term MS cannot ignore their electorates and the influence of public opinion. A clear example of this is the current crisis of the single currency. While public opinion was not very influential for a long time, its influence can be clearly seen in the anti-Euro programmes increasingly being adopted by radical parties throughout Europe. These are likely to be the biggest winners in the next elections of the European Parliament (in May 2014) and probably also will increase their voting shares in national elections.
Q: Based on your study, why can the EU’s public play a role in influencing its foreign policy? Is that because of the internet, social media, or…?
A: While the internet and social media are important in shaping and consolidating public preferences (and hence undoubtedly play a relevant role as well); once there is a clear trend in public opinion the study shows that it is political parties, and particularly radical right (recently radical left as well) parties that are the main translators of these preferences into policies.
The main reason for this might have to do with the fact that these parties are inherently populist. As a result, they have been the biggest beneficiaries of the complexity of European policy making. Given that there is no European demos, it is easy to mobilize public preferences against Brussels. Unlike national institutions, the EU is a complex multi-layered entity, which may appear distant from domestic interests and public concerns. Parties using a populist and nationalist rhetoric, claiming to protect those losing out from European integration and Globalization, easily exploit these concerns.
Q: Do you believe that the more the EU’s decision-makers hear the public’s opinions, the more likely their foreign policy will turn out to be more successful, productive, efficient, positive, etc.?
A: I think radical parties (right and more recently radical left) pose a real problem to EU decision makers. The fact that these actors have already jeopardized policies such as Enlargement, and that they currently threaten the project of monetary integration (were they to win substantial shares of the vote in European and national elections as is expected) needs to be addressed.
The main cause of this is the mismatch (in the short term) between European policies and public preferences. The EU has tried to address this unease by giving more powers to the European Parliament (EP), but voters are yet to recognize the EP as a legitimate representative of their concerns. Both mainstream political parties and the EU itself have to do a better job explaining the complexities of EU policy-making and responding faster to public preferences. This would take away the main source of support for radical parties and make European policies not only more productive and efficient, but also more sustainable over the long term.
Q: Finally, based on your own observation, what is the general impression of China in the minds of the Europeans? How can China shape this impression?
A: I believe this depends on the country one looks at. It is hard to speak of a single ‘European’ view towards China. In some countries (particularly in the south of Europe) fears of economic competition tend to dominate (even if China's impressive economic growth is at the same time praised). For example, the increase in the number of Mandarin courses offered and their popularity in countries such as Italy has been extraordinary. On the other hand, there seems to be a certain apprehension on the possible effects of China’s meteoric rise.
In my view, this fear stems mainly from a lack of knowledge of China and of Chinese policies. I believe China could shape these impressions by trying to get Europeans to know China better. This is already happening, in part thanks to efforts such as CCTV’s broadcasts in European languages and with deepening educational and cultural exchanges. A more detailed communication of Chinese policies and objectives could also help reducing the biases that tend to persist in European-media coverage of China.