Theoretical and Empirical Challenges Researching EU Foreign policy

European Union foreign policy – much as the European integration process itself – is a weird construct, it is “different”. Those distinct features matter much more profoundly and create certain “challenges” in researching EU foreign policy. One can expect conceptual challenges, in the form of clashing with other disciplines in an interdisciplinary field of EU studies, empirical challenges in the form of difficulty accessing data, methodological challenges of choosing one method over another and the general challenge of the complexity of EU foreign policy and deciding what to focus on. Challenges are not unsurmountable, and they are not necessarily a bad thing.


by Dr. Heidi Maurer, Maastricht University: h.maurer [at] maastrichtuniversity.nl

European Union foreign policy – much as the European integration process itself – is a weird construct, it is “different”. This is the first thing that scholars normally learn about EU foreign policy making. Its political part, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), is intergovernmental.  It is not like the rest of the community method or public policy making. At the same time for understanding EU foreign policy it is not sufficient to treat the EU like any other International Organization. After that, we then normally learn more details about EU foreign policy and EU foreign policy making: about the different actors involved and their distinct ways of interacting.

When in a next step we not only learn about EU foreign policy but actively engage in EU foreign policy research, those distinct features matter much more profoundly and create certain “challenges” in researching EU foreign policy.

Challenges are not unsurmountable, and they are not necessarily a bad thing. Looking back at my own learning process during the past decade, experiencing those challenges considerably contributed to the development of my own EU foreign policy understanding. And in the same manner, those challenges also often come up in discussing students work in researching EU foreign policy. In the following – and even more so during our masterclass - I want to propose to think about 3 challenges in particular: a conceptual, a methodological, and an empirical one.

A conceptual challenge: EU foreign policy as interdisciplinary but distinct research community

EU foreign policy researchers come from different social science disciplines, such as International Relations, comparative politics, political economy, law, or foreign policy analysis. This enriches the scholarship and academic deliberations, but EU foreign policy research is often the “odd one out” in those subfields and their traditions. In order to contribute actively to EU foreign policy scholarship, it is, therefore, even more indispensable to build on the distinct knowledge of EU foreign policy scholars. This does not mean that we should not look into related disciplines and look for theoretical and conceptual innovations to build on. Quite on the contrary: having EU foreign policy experts work with trade, development, or energy experts can help to grasp the complexity of EU foreign policy. But we must resist the temptation to not ask the distinct questions that the distinct nature and EU foreign policy identity requires to be answered.

My rather self-critical suggestion in this regard is simple: read. Read current scholarship but also go back to the “classics”, in order to consolidate and build on the rich EU foreign policy scholarship that has evolved during the past 50 years. And reading implies understanding, not just referencing.

Read current scholarship but also go back to the “classics”, in order to consolidate and build on the rich EU foreign policy scholarship that has evolved during the past 50 years. And reading implies understanding, not just referencing.

With this “challenge” in mind I proposed the article by Mike Smith for our session, because it always serves me as a good reminder to put current EU foreign policy developments into perspective.

An empirical challenge: access to empirical data

Researching EU Foreign Policy can mean investigating several levels of analysis. We can investigate decision-making in Brussels and the 27 capitals, look at instruments and political practices in order to achieve set goals, but also more widely look at the impact of EU foreign policy action on the ground in their countries. This makes for a myriad of interesting and relevant research questions.

EU foreign policy research needs to consider the access to data or the possibility for innovative and creative data generation during project design. How can we, for example, in an academically sound manner make judgement about the perceptions of Ukrainian civil society about EU action on the ground, if one does not have access to preexisting data or the resources to gather such data? How can we know about member states´ positions, if there 28 different ones to cover? This question of empirical data availability is, of course, relevant for any research project. But in the same manner it applies to EU foreign policy research. By pointing out this challenge I do not aim to discourage exciting research ambitions, but encourage to carefully consider a modest but carefully designed empirical contribution to EU foreign policy scholarship.

In terms of EU foreign policy decision making and implementation, there is in my view another helpful emphasis possible about the particular role and importance of member states. EU foreign policy making happens a lot in Brussels. But in order to understand member states´ positions EU foreign policy scholarship needs the scholarly insights, understanding and reflection from the 27 capitals. Which capital is more important than another might vary over time and with the peculiarities of a particular topic, but expertise in the internal politics of EU member states is not something that one can gain easily and in a short period of time.

EU foreign policy making happens a lot in Brussels. But in order to understand member states´ positions EU foreign policy scholarship needs the scholarly insights, understanding and reflection from the 27 capitals.

A methodological challenge: nothing wrong with qualitative research & thick description

EU foreign policy scholarship seems often leaning towards qualitative research, and that is good so. In some scholarly circles, there is a trend towards a rather arrogant dismissal of the academic quality and added value of “thick description” and a preference for “measuring” instead of “understanding”. As always questions of method should depend on the research question (and access to data), but in order to understand the rich EU foreign policy realities we need empirical research, even if it is difficult to attain. And we need understanding of those empirical observations in order to be able to better analyze. At the same time, a more open and rigid discussion about research qualities such as validity, reliability, and generalizability could help also to drive the methods of EU foreign policy scholarship forward.

In some scholarly circles, there is a trend towards a rather arrogant dismissal of the academic quality and added value of “thick description” and a preference for “measuring” instead of “understanding”.

 Next to those 3 points for discussion, I want to close with a general “challenge” that seems to be high on the public discourse at the moment but that I still find worthwhile to throw into our discussion: EU foreign policy is complex, and very often there are no simple explanations (or quick fixes). The demand for (academic) scholarship to show relevance and contribute to policy solutions, however, seems to favor quick conclusions (and those that are spreading them accordingly). Perhaps it would be helpful for all of us to be more patient with scholars that aim to explain in a more comprehensive manner – give more time and space for arguments to be developed and supported.

 Suggested reading for the masterclass session:

Smith, Michael H. (2003): The framing of European foreign and security policy: towards a postmodern policy framework? In: Journal of European Public Policy 10:4, 556-575.

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