In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section European Union as an International Actor

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Academic Journals
  • Historical Background
  • Theoretical Approach
  • Conceptual Approach
  • Perceptions of the European Union
  • Member States and European Union Foreign and Security Policies

International Relations European Union as an International Actor
Tine Van Criekinge
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0007


The study of the European Union (EU) as an international actor has expanded rapidly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The early years of informal European Political Cooperation (EPC) among the member states and the external relations of the then–European Communities (EC) in the 1970s through the late 1980s inspired little academic interest, because the EU’s role in the world was limited and often undervalued. With the institutionalization of European foreign policymaking through the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and later the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) in the 1990s, more scholars, especially of European integration and international relations (IR), began to focus their efforts on understanding this newly visible international role of the EU. Yet, the EU’s role as an international actor goes beyond merely the CFSP and the ESDP; it also includes policy areas, such as development, environment, and trade. Furthermore, through these policies the EU has built up an extensive network of relations across the globe, ranging from its immediate neighborhood to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America. This bibliography provides an overview of the scholarly literature and academic debates that accompanied the evolution of the EU as an international actor. It seeks to examine the topic from historical, theoretical, and conceptual perspectives; provide a broad overview of the various EU policy areas with an external dimension; look at the numerous geographical areas where the EU has relations; and explore some newer avenues for research to better understand the EU as an international actor.

General Overviews

This section includes books that present broad overviews of the EU as an international actor. The books provide good introductions and broad conceptual frameworks as well as opportunities to explore the different actors, policies, and actions that make up the EU’s role in the world. Bretherton and Vogler 2006, Hill and Smith 2005, Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, and Orbie 2008 provide broad and comprehensive overviews of the EU as an international actor, and they include individual chapters on the different policy areas that comprise the EU’s foreign policy as well as making relevant conceptual and theoretical contributions. The website Exploring EU Foreign Policy, which is based on Keukeleire and MacNaughtan 2008, provides a very good list of sources to consult for further information on particular areas of EU external relations. Smith 2002 is an excellent account of how EU foreign policy is made and the kinds of actions the EU has implemented abroad. Smith 2008 stands out among the other works, in that the author analyzes the EU’s international identity by looking explicitly at the output of EU foreign policy and the EU’s ability to reach its goals and objectives. For up-to-date information and news on the EU as an international actor, Global Europe is among the best online sources.

  • Bretherton, Charlotte, and John Vogler. The European Union as a Global Actor. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

    Solid and comprehensive overview of the EU’s external policies and the extent to which these policies can be seen to constitute the EU as a truly global actor. An absolute must-read for background information on the EU as an international presence in the world.

  • Exploring EU Foreign Policy. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Institute for International and European Policy.

    Based on Keukeleire and McNaughton 2008, this website provides the latest online news related to EU foreign policy and a useful list of various sources on institutional aspects of EU foreign policymaking and EU external relations.

  • Global Europe.

    Latest news on EU external relations from various sources. Lists relevant EU foreign-policy-related statements and an updated agenda of EU activities.

  • Hill, Christopher, and Michael Smith, eds. International Relations and the European Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Provides a solid analysis by investigating various EU policy areas with an external dimension. Uses international relations theory to evaluate EU external relations and the EU as a power in the world.

  • Keukeleire, Stephan, and Jennifer MacNaughtan. The Foreign Policy of the European Union. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    Looks at policy areas with an evident foreign policy dimension (namely, the Common Foreign and Security Policy) and the European Security and Defense Policy, but also analyzes how foreign policy developed in the EU institutions and the influences emanating from the member states. An excellent background read.

  • Orbie, Jan, ed. Europe’s Global Role: External Policies of the European Union. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.

    Provides a good historical overview of the different external policies with a “soft” dimension, such as development, energy, enlargement, environment, social policy, and trade. Draws relevant theoretical conclusions as to implications for the EU as an international actor.

  • Smith, Hazel. European Union Foreign Policy: What It Is and What It Does. London: Pluto, 2002.

    Unique in that it was among the first works to claim that the EU does indeed have a foreign policy of its own and that it can be analyzed in a similar manner to that of a nation-state.

  • Smith, Karen E. European Union Foreign Policy in a Changing World. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2008.

    Analyzes the nature of the EU’s international identity by focusing on how and why the EU achieves (or fails to achieve) its objectives in five core policy areas; namely, regional cooperation, human rights, the promotion of democracy and good governance, the prevention of violent conflicts, and the fight against international crime.

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