Identity Matters: Exploring the Ambivalence of EU Foreign Policy




One cannot begin to understand EU foreign policy without taking identity politics into account. First, the differential Europeanization of national identities explains to a large degree why the current European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) has not been supranationalized. Second, the gap between the EU’s grandiose rhetoric of being a ‘force for good’ in the world and its inability to put this foreign policy identity at work into practice, largely results from the fact that the EU’s construction of a distinct foreign policy identity is inward rather than outward-oriented. Last, but not least, the EU enlargement discourse, particularly about Turkey, has as much to do with contested self-descriptions of the EU and what follows for its boundaries than with any security or economic considerations. The article starts with conceptual remarks on collective identity, followed by three case studies focusing on the lack of supranationalization of the ESDP, the EU’s foreign policy construction as a civilian power, and the enlargement discourse, particularly with regard to Turkey. I conclude with some policy recommendations.

Policy Implications

  • • A ‘coalition of the willing’ should move ahead towards permanent structured cooperation in foreign and defence matters, irrespective of British objections.
  • • The more the EU pursues a coherent foreign policy with one voice, the more it will recognize that its foreign policy identity and its ‘vision for the world’ need to be adjusted.
  • • It is more important for European identity creation to pursue a coherent foreign policy than to embark on an identity discourse that cannot be put in practice.
  • • We need more rather than less public controversies about the boundaries of the EU and how these borders reflect European identity.

‘Economic giant, political dwarf!’–‘The EU does not get its act together’–‘The capability–expectation gap is widening’ (on the latter, see Hill, 1993; for a recent criticism of the EU’s inability to develop a coherent foreign policy, see Howorth, 2010). These are only a few of the many indictments of the European Union’s (EU) foreign and security policy to be found in editorials, but also, occasionally in the scholarly literature. And yet it moves! There have been more than 1000 common strategies, common positions and joint actions in common foreign and security policy (CFSP) since 1993 and more than 2000 foreign policy statements by the EU Council and Presidency between 1995 and 2008. Since 2003 there have been 25 civilian as well as military ESDP missions, 14 of which are ongoing. In addition, the EU adopted its own declaratory foreign policy strategy in 2003 (European Council, 2003, updated 2008). Finally, the Lisbon Treaty has more or less completed the foreign and security portfolio of the EU including a (sort of) foreign minister and the External Action Service. The EU now commands the whole range of institutional capabilities of a cohesive and strong foreign and security policy.

The EU as a foreign policy actor is also increasingly visible in transnational public spheres (Kantner, 2009; Kantner et al., 2008; Risse, 2010, pp. 131–132). To discern the visibility of the EU in foreign policy, we carried out a linguistic analysis of a corpus of more than 100,000 newspapers articles in seven EU member states and the USA from 1990–2005 focusing on military interventions. The data show that the EU is mentioned in 10–20 per cent of the articles on average, which is rather surprising, given the limited degree of EU competences in military affairs up to the late 1990s. We can observe some convergence in newspaper coverage from the late 1990s on, with its first peak in 1999, that is, during and after the Kosovo war which also led to important EU decisions with regard to establishing the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). The EU’s visibility then increases during the 2001–2003 period (post-9/11 and Afghanistan and the Iraq war) before decreasing again to the level of the mid-1990s. All in all, the data disconfirm the notion that the EU is simply absent in newspaper coverage on military and security affairs.

In other words, cooperation on foreign policy matters is the rule rather than the exception in the EU. The EU has emerged as a foreign policy actor and is able to pursue coherent foreign policies if it wants to, and if the conditions are right. Thus, the EU’s agency in foreign and security policy matters is no longer in question (Sjursen, 2006b; Thomas, 2011). This is the good news.

But there is also mixed news: Catherine Ashton’s appointment as EU ‘foreign minister’ documents that the member states had no intention of increasing the status of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and to weaken their own individual foreign policies. The disagreements among the EU 27 with regard to major foreign policy issues are also legendary. The 2003 Iraq invasion showed the existence of an intra-European split as much as a transatlantic one. The Libyan intervention in 2011 saw Germany, as the third largest military power in the EU, abstaining in the UN Security Council despite the fact that this was a clear case for the responsibility to protect asked for by the domestic opposition and supported by regional organizations in the Middle East.1 Concerning the Palestinian quest for statehood in the UN General Assembly, the EU is, once again, split in the middle.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, therefore, the glass is either half empty or half full with respect to a common European foreign and security policy. But how do we explain the variation between the EU’s ability to speak with one voice in some cases, while expressing a cacophony of opinions in others? And what precisely is the variation? I concentrate on three issues:

  • the refusal of important member states to supranationalize CSDP, which accounts for the inability of the EU to speak with one voice in many cases;
  • the often-noted gap between the EU’s grandiose rhetoric as ‘normative’ or ‘civilian power’ or ‘force for good’2 and its practice of prioritizing geostrategic and security interests over democracy and human rights in many cases (Börzel and Pamuk, 2012; Youngs, 2004);
  • the striking contrast between the EU’s consensus on Eastern enlargement during the 1990s and the contestation over Turkish EU membership during the 2000s.3

I argue in the following that we need to look at identity politics in each case, albeit different aspects of it. Before I discuss the three cases, however, I briefly clarify my understanding of identity politics; in particular, foreign policy identity.

What is identity politics?4

Identity is not only an elusive concept, it is also essentially contested. However, we can probably discern the following components of collective identities about which most authors agree:

  • 1Collective identities – no matter how essentialized they are (for example, in ethno-nationalist identities) – are fundamentally social constructions. The identities of nation-states or Europe are constructed in the discourses of various political and social elites, usually with references to particular historical memories and national symbols.
  • 2Social identities connect individuals to social groups in the sense of a ‘collective we’ (Abrams and Hogg, 1990; Turner, 1987). In the case of nations, or Europe for that matter, the ‘we’ refers to imagined communities rather than social groups with face-to-face interactions (Anderson, 1991).
  • 3Collective identities usually entail two substantive components. First, they describe what is special about the respective community. Second, they delineate the boundaries between us and them, that is, they define the boundaries of the communities. In some cases, this leads to negative attitudes towards the ‘out group’, even though the ‘others’ can also be regarded in neutral terms.
  • 4Since individuals usually feel attached to various social groups and imagined communities they hold multiple identities. Europe is no exception. European and national identities are not zero–sum propositions, but one can strongly identify both with one’s nation-state and with Europe. In fact, this is precisely what survey data show consistently (see for example, Hooghe and Marks, 2005; Risse, 2010, pp. 37–62).
  • 5Collective identities can be distinguished along various dimensions (Abdelal et al., 2009), including their substantive content, the degree of their contestation and their strength. The stronger the sense of loyalty, the more behavioral consequences we should expect (Kantner, 2006).

It follows that foreign policy identities are those parts of the identity constructions of political entities referring to their relationships to the outside world. Once again, they signify what is special about the community and how one can differentiate it from other communities. Take ‘civilian power Europe’. It describes the EU as a force for peace and multilateral cooperation and, at the same time, denotes that which European foreign policy is not, namely militarist or nationalist.

Finally, I do not claim that we can explain every single foreign policy move by a political entity with reference to its collective identity. However, one would expect that a political community’s collective identity influences its general foreign policy orientation (its ‘grand strategy’, so to speak; see for example, European Council 2003). Identity politics is likely to influence constitutional decisions as well as questions of membership, that is, who belongs to the community and who does not. In the following, I discuss three cases where identity politics is crucial to understanding the EU’s foreign policy.

Why there is no supranational ESDP5

In all, 17 of the 27 EU member states have given up core features of their national economic sovereignty and have accepted the Euro as a single currency. Moreover, the current Euro crisis will probably result in more, rather than less European integration, with regard to financial and economic policies, at least among the EU 17. In sharp contrast to European Monetary Union, which has been fully supranational from the beginning, foreign and security policy remains the one significant issue in European affairs in which decisions are still made consensually and in an intergovernmental fashion (see overview in Howorth 2007).6 How is this to be explained and what has identity to do with it?

International relations theory has a ready-made explanation for the puzzle, of course. Realism (Morgenthau, 1948; Waltz, 1979) tells us that states are unlikely to give up external sovereignty and the ultimate decision over war and peace. When the survival of the nation-state is at stake, as in questions of war and peace, states do not share or pool sovereignty. There are two problems with this argument. First, realism itself is indeterminate over these questions, since one can distinguish a version emphasizing that states primarily seek autonomy and a variant that focuses on ‘influence-seeking’ (Baumann et al, 2001). The refusal to extend qualified majority voting (QMV) to decisions over war and peace is consistent with a version of realism emphasizing autonomy. But if states seek to increase their power and influence in international politics, the unwillingness of some EU member states to give up external sovereignty in foreign and security affairs is outright self-defeating. The less Europe speaks with one voice in world politics, the less EU member states can exert influence. The European divisions over the Iraq war in 2003, over Palestine in 2011, or over Libya in 2012 only serve to highlight the point. Moreover, and whatever the version of realism one adheres to, balancing is supposed to be the standard behavior of nation-states. If middle and small powers start balancing, however, they need to pool resources and build alliances. In an emerging multipolar world one would then expect the EU to get its act together in foreign and security affairs in order to build a counterweight to US power or against the rise of China.

Second, it is wrong that most European states are not prepared to give up sovereignty in the realm of security and defence. There is no agreement among EU member states that giving up sovereignty in the realm of foreign and defence affairs is a bad idea. Roughly two-thirds of the current EU member states – let alone their populations – would be more than willing to supranationalize external security and national defence. This includes many of the big member states such as France, Germany, Spain or Italy. In 2007, 72 per cent of EU citizens favored a common European foreign and security policy – among them 84 per cent of the Germans and 52 per cent of the British (European Commission, 2007, p.148). Thus, realism seems to apply only to some countries such as the UK which has opposed majority voting in EU foreign policy so far.

If we want to account for the puzzle of European foreign and security policy, we must explain the variation among EU member states on their preparedness to supranationalize defence affairs. Rationalist or neoliberal institutionalism at least offers an interest-based account of interstate cooperation under specific conditions (for example, Haftendorn et al., 1999, for an application to transatlantic institutions). In this context, one could posit that the stronger a country’s military forces, the less it has to gain from supranational cooperation in defence affairs. Once again, the argument makes little sense, since it cannot explain the difference in attitudes between France and Germany, who have consistently supported moves toward supranationalizing defence affairs in the EU, and the UK. The difference in military power between the big three of the EU is too small to be able to account for the variation.

The only available empirical study that seeks to explain the variation concludes that federal states are more likely to prefer supranational decisions in external security and defence policies than unitary states (Koenig-Archibugi, 2004; see also Hooghe, 2001). Thus, domestic institutional features would explain differences in attitudes toward supranationalism in security affairs. The same member states that prefer supranationalism over intergovernmentalism in general are also prepared to supranationalize foreign and defence policies. What is less clear, though, are the causal mechanisms linking territorial structures to preferences for a common European foreign and defence policy. I suggest that the social constructions and collective understandings that come with federalism might be relevant. Countries whose elites and citizens are used to the notion that sovereignty can be divided and/or shared between various levels of governance, might also be more prepared to include supranational levels of governance in these understandings.

Germany serves as a case in point. Federalism has been constitutive for the German state for centuries; the Federal Republic of Germany is based on cooperative federalism that involves the sharing of sovereignty between the central state and the Länder.7 Moreover, as argued above, German elites have thoroughly Europeanized German collective identity after World War II. No wonder, then, that Germany supported a supranational EU foreign policy from the beginning. German policymakers from the center-left to the center-right were also never prepared to make a choice between NATO membership and a European defence policy.

In contrast, France has been a centralized state for centuries so that it does not easily fit the bill linking the territorial division of powers to a propensity to accept supranational solutions in defence affairs. It was not until the Anglo–French St Malo agreement of 1998 that the French government recognized that a common European foreign and security policy could not be promoted as an alternative to NATO but that it had to accept the German sowohl als auch (‘as well as’) in order to reach progress in EU foreign policy. The issue at stake for France was not supranationalism but the relationship between NATO and ESDP. This issue has finally been solved when France under President Sarkozy re-entered NATO’s military structure in 2009. I suggest that France’s ambivalence with regard to a truly supranational European defence policy has more to do with the half-hearted Europeanization of French elite identities than with the institutional structures of the French state.

St Malo also marked the beginning of a British turnaround towards ESDP, which was then enshrined in the 1999 Helsinki agreements of the European Council. In 1998 the British government with Prime Minister Tony Blair had gradually come to accept the notion that NATO and the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ were not endangered by closer European defence cooperation. But the British government constantly objected to any move toward supranationalism in EU foreign and security policy, blocking agreement in the Constitutional Convention, the subsequent Intergovernmental Conference, and in the negotiations leading up to the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon. It is hard to interpret this stubborn British position without taking sovereignty considerations into account. The British arguments against supranational decision-making in EU foreign and defence policy closely resemble those against the Euro. But in this case, and in contrast to the single currency issue, Britain exerts an effective veto power. While the Euro is viable with or without the British Pound, a common EU defence policy requires British participation as the country with one of the largest and best trained armed forces in Europe.

In sum, it is very hard to explain the variation in member states’ preferences on supranationalizing CSDP without references to the different Europeanization of elite identities. Note that the identity politics relevant here is not a European foreign policy identity but the variations in the Europeanization of national identities.

My argument is underscored by the move of five EU member states (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland) tasking Catherine Ashton to

examine all institutional and legal options available to member states, including permanent structured co-operation, to develop critical CSDP capabilities, notably a permanent planning and conduct capability.8

In other words, we might well see a core group of EU member states moving ahead towards a truly common security and defence policy, thereby using the newly available options for closer cooperation of the Lisbon Treaty. While such a common ESDP will probably exclude Great Britain, particularly in light of recent events over the Euro crisis, it would strongly enhance the EU’s ability to speak with one voice in foreign policy.

Why there is a gap between EU foreign policy words and deeds

The first case concerns national identities and their different kinds of Europeanization. But the relationship between identity and foreign policy does not end here. Many EU member states that have long supported QMV in foreign and security policy are also those pushing for mostly multilateral and cooperative foreign and security policies. They do not prefer a militarized European foreign and defence policy, but Europe as a ‘civilian power’ (see Duchêne, 1972 for the original concept; Maull, 1990). While a ‘civilian power’ does not refuse to use military force under exceptional circumstances, it emphasizes cooperative security policy, multilateralism, and the rule of (international) law. This is precisely the foreign and security policy identity which the EU tries to build from the 1990s on, even though it only had the whole range of instruments available in the early 2000s (Anderson, 2008; Börzel and Risse, 2009; Howorth, 2007).

There is nothing peculiar about the EU promoting a particular identity in its external relations. Every great power in the history of international relations has tried to promote a certain set of values in its foreign affairs – from the Roman to the British empire, from the Soviet Union, which tried to promote Communism on a global scale, to the USA, which countered with its own vision of global democracy and capitalism.9 The more interesting point is that the EU has started behaving like any other great power in this regard, even though its agency in foreign affairs has long been disputed (Hill, 1993; Sjursen, 2006a). This agency is no longer in question, not even in the public spheres (Kantner et al., 2008).

With regard to its foreign policy identity, ‘the discourse of the EU as a normative power constructs a particular self of the EU’ (Diez, 2005, p. 614). Stephanie Anderson (2008) went a step further and argued that creating a distinct foreign policy identity is the whole point of the EU’s efforts in external affairs. This foreign policy identity represents the outward-looking version of the EU’s modern and enlightenment identity, emphasizing the rule of (international) law, multilateral and peaceful conflict resolution, as well as the promotion of human rights, democracy and a social market economy. The 2003 ‘European Security Strategy’, the first EU attempt to develop a comprehensive foreign and security policy strategy, was full of references linking what is constitutive of modern and democratic Europe to its vision for international affairs. It started by celebrating the EU’s role in establishing an enduring peace in Europe, as a result of which its members ‘are committed to dealing peacefully with disputes and to cooperating through common institutions’ (European Council 2003, p. 1). The document extensively dealt with the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security threats emphasizing that ‘none of the new threats is purely military; nor can any be tackled by purely military means’ (European Council, 2003, p. 7). The strategy then promoted an ‘international order based on effective multilateralism’ (European Council, 2003, p. 9) committing the EU to supporting multilateralism and the United Nations as well as furthering human rights, the rule of law and democracy in its external affairs. In this regard, the document intentionally distanced itself from the Bush Administration’s tendencies toward unilateralism and preventive warfare.

But the EU’s attempt to consciously develop its own foreign policy identity is not confined to a declaratory strategy alone. By about 2000, the EU’s foreign and security policy had at its disposal the entire set of instruments necessary for the promotion of democracy and human rights as well as for post-conflict peace and post-conflict state-building (Börzel and Risse, 2009; Magen et al., 2009). Human rights conditionality, for example, has been integrated in all but a few of its association as well as partnership agreements with countries around the world. The European Neighbourhood Policy towards the Southern Caucasus, Central Asia and the Mediterranean includes a set of instruments to promote democracy and good governance. Ironically, when the EU member states were bitterly divided over their stance toward the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the first robust EU peacekeeping mission started.

However, it is one thing to suggest that the EU actively constructs a particular foreign policy identity. It is quite different to claim that the emerging EU foreign policy can be explained by the EU’s collective identity. A whole body of literature criticizes the hypocritical nature of EU foreign policies, which often prioritizes geostrategic and security interests over human rights and democracy concerns (for example, Bicchi, 2006; Pace, 2007; Youngs, 2004). Moreover, multilateralism might be the foreign policy identity of the weak who do not command the necessary economic and military resources to develop a more forceful foreign policy (Kagan, 2003; see also Hyde-Price, 2006).

Thus, the question boils down to (i) whether the EU’s foreign policy identity as a civilian power is a matter of choice or of necessity and (ii) how we can account for the gap between the EU’s words and deeds. As to the first point, the lack of QMV in foreign and defence affairs might lead to decisions based on the lowest common denominator, leaving the EU with no other choice than to behave as a civilian power. However, while the EU’s military might is no match for the USA, its combined defence expenditure of ca. 200 billion Euro is second only to the USA and exceeds the military expenditures of, say, Russia or China. The individual member states, Great Britain, France and Germany are the second, fourth and sixth, respectively, with regard to defence spending worldwide (Stockholm Peace Research, 2008, Appendix 5A). The EU contains two nuclear powers, France and Great Britain. Finally, the EU’s combined GDP constitutes the greatest economic power in the world, which would certainly command the economic resources to become a formidable military power. These data suggest that the EU’s self-proclaimed civilian power identity is indeed a matter of choice rather than necessity.

As to the second question, how can we account for the gap between EU self-description as a ‘force for good’ and its deeds, which are often inconsistent with its proclaimed values of promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law? I would argue that this gap can be explained if we take the EU’s self-proclaimed foreign policy goals as a ‘civilian or normative power’, not as a prescription for a grand strategy but as a more reflexive attempt at conscious identity creation in foreign policy. As Stephanie Anderson argued (2008), this effort is mainly meant for internal consumption. Given that Europe and the EU lack a strong supranational identity, the EU’s foreign policy identity can be seen as an attempt to externalize its core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is part and parcel of the effort at identity creation rather than a prescription for foreign and security policy.

As a result, a mismatch – or, better, decoupling – of words and deeds can be expected. Moreover, a foreign policy identity prioritizing liberal and cosmopolitan values over everything else is likely to fail in the real world. I do not mean to suggest a ‘norms versus interest’ account, which is problematic on theoretical grounds. Rather, I argue that any major foreign policy actor such as the EU needs to balance security, economic and other material needs with the promotion of core values. A foreign policy identity that does not take into account the fact that states as well as supranational entities such as the EU need to worry about potential security threats or about economic issues in a globalized world is likely to fail in practice.10 Take the Middle East: for all its rhetoric about the promotion of democracy and human rights, the EU foreign policy behavior prioritized stability over other values, which meant stabilizing autocratic rulers and applying double standards (Van Hüllen, 2010; Youngs and Wittes, 2009). The Arab spring took the EU as much by surprise as anybody else and the EU is now scrambling to regain credibility in the Middle East.

In sum, this second case is one in which a specific EU foreign policy identity has been created as an extension of the EU’s self-description as a force of enlightenment, human rights and democracy towards the outside world. The primary purpose of this foreign policy identity, however, is directly inwardly as a means to strengthen the EU’s sense of community. As a result, this grandiose foreign policy identity inevitably clashes with the reality of EU foreign policy on the ground and the need in any foreign policy action to balance various (legitimate) goals, such as security, economic interests and human rights.

Identity clashes: why the EU is ambivalent on Turkish membership

My third case relates to a crucial component of any imagined community’s self-identity, namely, boundary construction. A community such as the EU needs to delineate who is in and who is out. These issues become relevant with regard to EU enlargement.11 I suggest that one cannot even begin to understand EU enlargement without taking identity politics into account. European identities explain to a large degree the relatively smooth processes of Eastern enlargement, since there it was inconceivable to challenge the notion that Central Eastern Europe (CEE) belongs to modern Europe, as represented by the EU. In sharp contrast, Turkish EU membership has remained contested from the very beginning – and identity concerns explain a large part of this controversy.

With regard to Eastern enlargement, the EU and its representatives used the community discourse from the beginning to legitimize the CEE countries’ request to enter the union. The dominant discourse in Europe confirmed that CEE belonged to the community as ‘part of us’ so that it became very difficult for enlargement opponents to raise objections. The enlargement discourse constructed Europe and the EU as a community of liberal values and market economies, as a result of which the democratizing Central Eastern Europeans acquired an almost natural right to join the EU (Fierke and Wiener, 1999; Neumann, 2001; see also Schimmelfennig, 2003). The 1993 European Council explicitly offered an accession perspective to CEE, provided that they met certain conditions; which again express the self-description of the EU as community of democracies: the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ enshrining the values of modern and enlightened Europe (human rights, democracy, rule of law and a market economy).

As a result, it took the EU less than 15 years after the end of the Cold War to accept CEE as member states. In contrast, the history of Turkish–EU relations is one of slow motion. As early as 1963 Turkey signed an Association Agreement that acknowledged the final goal of membership. More than two decades later, Turkey applied for EC/EU membership in 1987. In 1999 the European Council accepted Turkish membership candidacy. It took another 5 years until the 2004 European Council acknowledged that Turkey fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria and that membership negotiations should begin in October 2005. Major EU member states such as Germany under Chancellor Merkel and France under former President Sarkozy have opposed full Turkish membership, favoring a privileged partnership instead.

The cumbersome and open-ended history of Turkish–EU relations demonstrates the deep ambiguity with which both the EU and Turkey have approached the membership issue over the years. Both Turkey and the EU in their respective discourses have constructed Turkey as a ‘metaphor between Europe and Asia’, as Nur Bilge Criss has put it (2007). Depending where Turkey is discursively situated in this metaphor, it is either in Europe and, thus, eligible for EU membership, or out. As a result, the contemporary debates about Turkish EU membership is simultaneously about who Europe and the Europeans are, that is, European identity, as it is about who Turkey and the Turkish are, that is, Turkish identity.

The discourses about Turkish membership in major EU member states show a profound ambivalence about whether or not Turkey belongs to Europe. The debate about Turkish membership is a discussion about the European borders. Where does Europe end and who, as a result, has a legitimate claim to EU membership? The debate about Turkey involves different conceptions of European identity. To begin with, there is the modern, inclusive and liberal vision of Europe that found its most significant expression in the Copenhagen criteria. Accordingly, Turkey is seen as a part of Europe as long as it respects the liberal agenda and complies with its norms. As Olli Rehn put it in 2004:

A Turkey where the rule of law is firmly rooted in its society and state will prove that, contrary to prejudices, European values can successfully coexist with a predominantly Muslim population. Such a Turkey will be a most valuable crossroads between civilisations (quoted in Lundgren, 2006, p. 137).

The more the EU is constructed as a community embracing human rights and the rule of law, the more Turkey is at least eligible to become a member, even though its use of torture and its treatment of the Kurdish minority are still criticized. Supporters of Turkish EU membership also allude to Europe’s historical heritage to which ‘Istanbul, the old Constantinople, [belongs as] a cradle of our civilization’ (Denis MacShane, 2004, quoted in Madeker, 2008, p. 136). This identity construction connects to the idea of Turkey as a bridge between East and West, the Orient and the Occident, as well as between Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam (from East Rome to Byzantium and Constantinople to Istanbul). Identity frames that include Turkey as part of the European self are represented in the public discourse by center-left politicians and by Turkish speakers. The vision of a modern and liberal European identity constructing a democratic Turkey as belonging to Europe also dominated debates in the European Parliament (Giannakopoulos and Maras, 2005), and in the British media (Wimmel 2006). In Germany, however, inclusive identity frames with regard to Turkey are minority positions (Madeker, 2008, p. 139; Wimmel, 2006).

In contrast, an exclusionary counter-discourse developed in the French and German media constructing Turkey outside Europe and, thus, not eligible for membership (Von Oppeln, 2005). As Madeker’s quantitative and qualitative media analysis documents for the German public sphere, the construction of an exclusionary European identity according to which Turkey constitutes the ‘Other’ of Europe, developed in the conservative press but quickly dominated the discourse. Of course, this construction is not new: Turkey as the Other of European identity has a very long history going back to the Ottoman Empire and its struggles with ‘Christian’ Europe (Icener, 2007, ch. 5).

Opponents of Turkish EU membership use geographical, cultural, historical and religious references to construct Turkey as outside Europe. As to geography, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French President and President of the European Constitutional Convention, argued in articles published across Europe that only 5 per cent of the Turkish territory and only 7 per cent of its population live in a ‘European enclave’, while the remaining parts are located in Asia and Anatolia (Giscard d’Estaing, 2004). Such a primordial identity construction constructs a ‘natural’ European border along the Bosporus, which is then used to exclude Turkey from Europe.

The allegedly natural boundary also serves as a cultural and historical boundary sealing Turkey off from a modern Europe of enlightenment and liberalism. As Giscard d’Estaing put it:

The European Convention sought a clearer definition of the foundations of this entity, which include the cultural contributions of ancient Greece and Rome, the religious heritage pervading European life, the creative enthusiasms of the Renaissance, the philosophy of the Age of the Enlightenment and the contributions of the rational and scientific thought. Turkey shares none of these (Giscard d’Estaing, 2004).12

The statement is remarkable in so far as it uses the historical heritage of a modern European identity as an exclusionary device. It is hard to see why Romania and Bulgaria as new members, as well as the western Balkans with its accession perspective, share this decidedly West European heritage, while Turkey does not. While Giscard did not use Christianity as a demarcation line to exclude Turkey from the EU, others did:

Islam which has been built in Turkey on the ruins of a Roman–Christian civilization is completely unsuitable to revive the soul of Europe (Die Welt, 10 September 2004, quoted in Madeker, 2008, p. 144).

The discourse on Turkish EU membership pitches two European identity constructions against each other in transnational public spheres. The first concerns the modern, inclusionary and liberal Europe that is open to new members, including Turkey, as long as they comply with the Copenhagen criteria of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. A second and exclusionary identity discourse amalgamates geographical, cultural, historical and religious constructions to keep Turkey out once and for all. In its most sophisticated version it even uses the modern and liberal European identity in a primordial way so that others who do not share the history leading to this identity can never participate in it. This exclusionary Europe represents a noteworthy kind of nationalist, but nevertheless Europeanized, identity construction. It is Europeanized because it pertains to a supranational entity, the EU. It is nationalist at the same time, since it uses the exclusionary building blocks of 19th century nationalism to reconstruct them on the European level.

As argued above and in contrast to the case of Eastern enlargement, European identities vis-à-vis Turkey remain fundamentally unsettled and deeply contested. It might be precisely the lack of clarity and the contested nature of identities and interests in this case which explain why the EU and Turkey have been struggling over the membership issue for the past decades and why the accession talks have been rather cumbersome so far. If this argument holds true the prospects of Turkey joining the union any time soon are rather remote – apart from all the other institutional and political obstacles.

(Policy) conclusions

I have argued in this article that one cannot begin to understand EU foreign policy without taking identity politics into account. First, the differential Europeanization of national identities explains to a large degree why the current ESDP has not been supranationalized. Second, the gap between the EU’s grandiose rhetoric of itself as a force for good in the world, on the one hand, and its inability to put this foreign policy identity at work in its practice, on the other hand, largely results from the fact that the EU’s construction of a distinct foreign policy identity is inward-oriented rather than outward-oriented. Last, but not least, the EU enlargement discourse with regard to particularly Turkey has at least as much to do with contested self-descriptions of the EU and what follows for its boundaries than with any security or economic considerations. My analysis leads to the following policy recommendations:

  • A ‘coalition of the willing’ in the EU should now move ahead towards permanent structured cooperation in foreign policy and defence matters, as foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty. Such a move will exclude Great Britain, which is a pity, given the British military capabilities. But it is unavoidable in order to close the expectations–capabilities gap of EU foreign policy for good.
  • The more the EU pursues a coherent foreign policy with one voice, the more it will recognize that its foreign policy identity and ‘vision for the world’ needs to be adjusted. While the EU should not give up its goals of making the world a more peaceful place and of promoting human rights and democracy, it must realize that foreign policy is about reconciling conflicting goals. In the end, it is more important for European identity creation to pursue a coherent foreign policy than to embark on an identity rhetoric that cannot be put in practice.
  • European elites need to realize that enlargement decisions inevitably involve identity politics. We need more rather than less open and public controversies about the boundaries of the EU and how these borders reflect European identity. Silencing identity discourses will achieve the opposite of what is intended, since it will make future enlargement decisions more rather than less difficult.


  • A draft of this article was presented at the 2011 Dahrendorf Symposium in Berlin, 8–10 November 2011. I thank my co-panelists as well as two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments.

  • 1

    I should say at the outset that this analysis offers no good explanation for Germany’s voting behavior in the UN Security Council. It is inconsistent with both Germany’s approach to CSDP and with German support for the ‘responsibility to protect’.

  • 2

    Diez 2005; Duchêne 1972; Manners 2002; Sjursen 2006b.

  • 3

    Strictly speaking, EU enlargement does not really concern the EU’s external affairs. However, I discuss these matters here, since the foreign policy consequences of enlargement decisions are obvious.

  • 4

    See Risse 2010, ch. 1, for the following.

  • 5

    See Risse 2010, 191–196, for the following.

  • 6

    Note that this pertains mostly to military and defence issues. EU foreign affairs in the areas of environmental policies, human rights and development aid, not to mention external trade, are mostly subject to supranational decision-making, including QMV.

  • 7

    This is the crucial difference from US federalism, which is based on a clear separation of powers between the US states and the federal level. As a result, we would not expect the USA to give up sovereignty to supranational bodies as easily.

  • 8

    See (Sept. 11, 2011).

  • 9

    It is, therefore, misleading to call the EU a normative power, given that promoting norms is not what distinguishes the EU from other powers in world history (on this concept see Manners 2002, 2006).

  • 10

    In fact, the 2003 ESS does try to strike a balance between diverse values and foreign policy goals. Its main problem is that the EU never made a serious attempt to implement it.

  • 11

    The following summarizes Risse 2010, chapter 9.

  • 12

    For similar quotes see Madeker 2008, 142–148; also Schäfer and Zschache 2008; Wimmel 2006.

Author Information

Thomas Risse is Professor of international politics at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. He co-directs the Research Center “Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood” and the Research College “Transformative Power of Europe,” both funded by the German Research Foundation. He is the author of A Community of Europeans? Transnational Identities and Public Spheres (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).