Governmental Change and New Causal Ideas in Britain. Why ESDP Lifted Off in 1999

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 24 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: European Union


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. British preference change on Europe
2.1. The Major government
2.2. The Blair government

3. The mechanism that led to St Malo
3.1. New causal ideas as road maps
3.2. The impact of an epistemic community
3.3. The catalytic effect of the Kosovo crisis

4. Alternative explanations
4.1. Modified neorealist foreign policy theory
4.2. Transnational constructivist foreign policy theory

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

After 1945, the idea of a common European security policy was repeatedly advocated on, assessed, discussed, and always rejected in the end. General wisdom still has it that the European states are unable to effectively co-ordinate in the fields of foreign policy and security. Yet today, the EU has a record of military missions in Macedonia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is in charge not only of the international police forces of the Bosnia peace-keeping mission, but also of the international military forces of that mission. The foundations of this (r)evolution had been laid at the Cologne and Helsinki EU summits of 1999, giving institutional and material life to the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).[1] Considered the rapidity with which ESDP evolved ever since,[2] one could, metaphorically speaking, label the agreements of 1999 the “lift-off” of ESDP.

This lift-off seems somewhat surprising, in fact quite puzzling, after years if not decades of non-decision on the matter of co-operation in European security policy outside NATO. – Arises the question: Why did ESDP lift off in 1999?

On the systemic level, both neorealism and institutionalism might claim some explanatory power, judging the ESDP lift-off inevitable ex post, because of necessary adjustments concerning the world balance of power (Europe balancing the United States), or because of functionalist spill-over effects of the overall integration process, respectively. In addition, institutionalists may argue that with the WEU, there already existed a European security institution, whose integration into the EU enabled ESDP to lift off as rapidly as it did; furthermore, the EU’s common foreign and security policy (CFSP) provided something to build on in creating structures for ESDP, which logically forms part of CFSP. The connections with the WEU and CFSP might well explain the rapidity of the lift-off, but they do not fully do so for the lift-off itself. Neither neorealism nor institutionalism can answer the question why it happened in 1999, and why not before, or later.

I argue that a second-image approach concentrating on state preferences does better in explaining ESDP’s lift-off than systemic (third-image) approaches. As trivial as it may seem, we should take as starting-point that favourable EU member state preferences, at least among all “major” states, constituted a necessary condition for the lift-off of ESDP. “Preferences” are varying political goals of states, and the means chosen to achieve them. Once preferences favourable in view of a common European security policy had become dominant within all “major” EU states, preference convergence led to the 1999 agreements, i.e. the ESDP lift-off. Thus, I draw upon Andrew Moravcsik’s notion of liberal IR theory, explaining a systemic outcome (the ESDP lift-off) by referring to variable state preferences, the current state of which is determined by internal factors, like the internal distribution of power, lobbying activities of influential groups, dominant ideas and identities, etc.[3]

In the case of ESDP, special attention has to be drawn to the role of the United Kingdom, for in the 1990s it was the one major European actor who constantly objected any steps toward European security integration, and whose objection basically prevented the creation of a common security policy until 1998/99.[4] Assuming that the existence of favourable preferences among three major European states, Great Britain, France and Germany, is sufficient for initiating a common security policy framework, and assuming further that both France and Germany indeed favoured security integration at least since 1990,[5] this study focuses on the UK, i.e. on the evaluation of British preference configurations and shifts therein. It is widely accepted that the Franco-British St Malo declaration of 4 December 1998, calling for autonomous EU military action in international crises, symbolised a fundamental shift in British policy on European security, and that this British approval of a common security policy engendered ESDP.[6] So, to answer the initial question why ESDP lifted off in 1999, one has to explore the following: Why did the UK agree to a common European security policy in 1998?

At any given time, there may exist various preferences guiding the UK’s foreign policy in general and its European security policy in particular. This paper identifies two wider issues of UK foreign policy, whose preference configurations shape the UK policy on European security: transatlantic relations (meaning relations with the US) and “Europe” (covering all questions of European co-operation and integration, especially within the framework of the EU). I will try to make seem convincing the hypothesis that a shift in preferences in one of these issues opened up the way for the fundamental shift in UK European security policy that materialised most prominently in the St Malo declaration. In concrete terms, I argue that the 1997 general election brought about a shift in UK preferences on Europe, which did not directly “cause” the shift in European security policy, but which constituted a conditio sine qua non, for the new combination of positive preferences both on Atlanticism and on Europe enabled an intervening causal mechanism to work, which otherwise would not have functioned.[7] This mechanism comprises the intervention of two specific causal ideas as road maps to political action, the linked impact of an epistemic community, and the catalytic effect of current external events.[8] To be quite explicit: I concentrate on shifts in the internal setting of the United Kingdom, especially in government and causal ideas, to explain the UK’s shift in European security policy, which in turn caused the lift-off of ESDP by creating a situation of preference convergence among the major European states on a common security policy within the EU.[9]

I apply a rather empirical-inductive methodology in this single case study, tracing the process of preference change on Europe in general and on specific causal ideas in particular. For empirical evidence, I mainly draw on the literature on British foreign and European policy. First, I will present my case of UK preference change on Europe by offering insights into policies and constraints of the Major and Blair governments; from there, I will go on to spell out in detail the causal mechanism that led from this preference change to the outcome of St Malo. Finally, I will discuss two relevant alternative explanations for the UK’s shift in European security policy, namely modified neorealist foreign policy theory and transnational constructivist foreign policy theory.[10]

2. British preference change on Europe

2.1. The Major government

John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher a Britain that had the reputation of being an awkward partner in Europe,[11] not least because of Thatcher’s personal attitudes and her robust handling of Council meetings. In Thatcher’s eyes, “the European movement as a whole threatened British sovereignty”.[12] Worse still, Thatcher had built up an image at home of permanently fighting for British sovereignty in Brussels, presumably to enhance her popularity with the electorate.[13] Yet, the British government, as other European governments, always knew how to use the Union for its own purposes, especially in foreign policy. The European Political Co-operation (EPC) was a welcome means to give British policies more weight, for example in the Falkland crisis, or to use it as a shield of anonymity in criticising US policy, for example in the case of the Reagan administration’s policies in Middle America. Before Thatcher during the Falkland crisis practically took over foreign policy herself, the UK even was a motor in EPC development.[14] The motive to give one’s own interests more weight in the world through co-ordination with the European partners is a recurrent theme in British governments; we find it again with Tony Blair.

After seizing power, Major was quick in trying to improve upon his country’s reputation in Europe. Early in 1991, he claimed to aim for the UK to be “at the heart of Europe”[15] – but this undertaking proved to be of no success at all, on the contrary. Two major events in 1992/93 in British-European relations set the course for the Major government’s further policies on Europe. First, the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty revealed severe rifts within the Conservative Party on European integration and the UK’s role therein. In the negotiations, the British had to make concessions, but were generally seen as having achieved many of their goals; as for foreign policy and the creation of CFSP, the government had to accept the introduction of majority voting and the mentioning of common defence in the treaty, but common defence was postponed to an uncertain future, and majority voting was limited “to a degree that casts doubt on its practical applicability”.[16] However, a significant number of Conservative MPs was not ready to vote for the treaty. Maastricht symbolised to them “a treaty too far” in Europe’s development to integration and “federalism”, perceived as not acceptable on both neo-liberal (economic) and nationalist (sovereignty) grounds.[17] These dissidents were given considerable political support by Margaret Thatcher, who challenged the government by unequivocal statements, claiming a referendum and stating that she would vote against ratification.[18] Second, on 16 September 1992, “Black Wednesday”, the pound had to be withdrawn from the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM). This was a political defeat for the government and strengthened the position of its inner-party adversaries on European issues.[19]

Regarding European policy, John Major was, for the rest of his premiership, restricted to prevent his thin parliamentary majority, and indeed his cabinet itself, from falling apart over Europe.[20] In Major’s own words: “Once the Maastricht Treaty had been ratified [in 1993] I hoped our European travails would be over. They were not. […] Europe had the capacity to split the Conservative Party and hurl it into the wilderness – or even, I feared, destroy it for good”.[21] As of 1996, there were about 130 Tory MPs out of roughly 300 who were revisionist on Europe (calling for re-nationalisation of Commission powers, or for leaving the EU), 80 in favour of full integration or constructive engagement, and the “middle ground” of 80 to 100 supporters of traditional Thatcherism whose values were national identity, minimal government and free enterprise economy, and whose position on Europe after Maastricht presumably was as sceptical as that of Margaret Thatcher herself (see above). The median clearly is on the right wing of the sceptics, not so far from the revisionists’ camp.[22]

As a consequence, “European policy throughout the period between 1992 and 1997 was conducted against a domestic background of an internally divided government, with an increasingly precarious parliamentary majority, which was unpopular in the country and subject, as time went by, to scandals and misfortunes. Central to all this was the issue of British membership of the EC/EU”.[23] Even though John Major possibly had intended to pursue a different, more co-operative policy on Europe, the majorities in his party did not allow him to define the UK’s preferences on Europe in more positive terms; preferences were, by the end of John Major’s premiership, more dominated by scepticism than ever and “European policy had become the prisoner of domestic faction”.[24]


[1] Three new bodies were created, linked to the Council itself: the Political and Security Committee (PSC), the European Military Committee (EUMC) and the European Military Staff (EUMS). The heads of state and government furthermore established the so-called Helsinki headline goal, i.e. agreed to set up military forces up to 60,000 persons, deployable within 60 days, sustainable for at least one year, capable of “the full range of Petersberg tasks”, notably expeditionary peace enforcement and peace keeping. – For the road from Cologne to Helsinki, see Duke 2002: 31-44.

[2] Most significantly maybe, the WEU agreed, at a ministerial meeting in Marseilles in November 2000, to merge most of its tasks and resources into the EU. Although the devil in the detail still sometimes surfaces, the development of ESDP was not even significantly hindered by the inner-European quarrels over the Iraq war of 2003, as feared by Howorth 2003. The latest step in the establishment of a credible ESDP was the November 2004 announcement of EU defence ministers to create thirteen so-called “battle groups” of 1,500 persons each, to conduct “robust” missions within a radius of 6,000 km.

[3] Moravcsik 1997.

[4] Martin/Garnett 1997 still could note that Britain would never “agree to Franco-German desires to merge the WEU into the EU, for fear of communautaire infection of the former” (134/35).

[5] Wagner 2002, for example, explores the rather positive approach to CFSP of France and Germany after the historical water-shed of 1989-91, and the rather negative one of Britain. Although Wagner does not concentrate on this, this also meant different views over a common defence and security policy.

[6] The central statement of the St Malo declaration was that the EU “must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so”. The declaration, along with other relevant material on the ESDP lift-off, is reprinted, for example, in Howorth 2000b. The shift in British policy on European security was first observed in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s statement at the informal EU summit at Pörtschach (Austria) on October 24/25, 1998, which in turn was anticipated by an interview with Blair published in major European newspapers on October 21/22. However, in this paper I symbolically will refer to “St Malo”, meaning the British government’s fundamental shift on a common European security policy.

[7] On causal mechanisms in more general terms than applied here, see Elster 1998.

[8] See Goldstein/Keohane 1993 on causal beliefs and ideas as road maps, and Haas 1992 on epistemic communities.

[9] However, by the time of St Malo, many a detail still was to be discussed. It was not very clear how ESDP and its relation with NATO finally would look like. Concerning the relations with NATO, not even today do we know what nature they will take on in the long run. Nevertheless, there was preference convergence on the general plan to introduce a EU defence capacity.

[10] I draw on Baumann/Rittberger/Wagner 2001 in the case of modified neorealist foreign policy theory, and on Boekle/Rittberger/Wagner 2001 for transnational constructivist foreign policy theory.

[11] On the notion of the „awkward partner“ in Europe, see George 1998.

[12] Taylor 1991, 143.

[13] See Allen 1988, 52.

[14] On all this, see Hill 1996.

[15] Cf. George 1998, 238-40.

[16] Schoutheete de Tervarent 1997, 60/61.

[17] See Baker 2001, 280.

[18] On the whole Maastricht ratification episode, see George 1998, 244-50.

[19] See George 1998, 250/51.

[20] Cf. Hughes/Smith 1998, 94.

[21] Major 1999, 583/84.

[22] The figures are taken from Schwarz 1996, 44/45. The arguments on Europe within the party constantly deteriorated until the 1997 elections (and still continue to haunt it): “It was an issue on which the party turned inwards, self-destructing, as Conservative candidates publicly opposed each other’s stance on the single European currency and relations with Europe generally, giving way to an orgy of mutual recrimination. The differences between Conservative candidates mirrored those in John Major’s government”, Wickham-Jones 2000, 8.

[23] George 1998, 238.

[24] Cradock 1997, 143.


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Free University of Berlin – Otto-Suhr-Institut für Politikwissenschaft
ESDP UK Foreign Policy John Major Tony Blair Kosovo Kosovo War Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy Influence of Epistemic Communities New Ideas and Foreign Policy Special Relationship (UK - US) NATO European Security Institutions United Kingdom Labour Party Preference Change in Foreign Policy Saint-Malo (Accord) Catalytic Events in Foreign Policy European Security Centre for European Reform




Title: Governmental Change and New Causal Ideas in Britain. Why ESDP Lifted Off in 1999