EU Small States Foreign Policy

By Dino Galinovic

The Melian dialogue has the phrase “the powerful do what they want, and the weak what they have to do”. This phrase might be the best way to describe the difference between big and small states in international relations.

There is no unique definition of small states, and their foreign policy is analyzed through the expression “small is dangerous” in terms of insufficient capacity, adherence to high-power strategies, and adoption of solutions that have been already taken. Moreover, small states are willing to take over existing norms and policies of larger states, with the aim to gain their economic and military support. Realist discourse places emphasis on the concept of power and survival in the international community, defining small states as lagging behind large powers in terms of quantitative indicators, not projecting enough power to influence other actors, having the least chance of survival, and being constantly in a state of fear from the potential threat to sovereignty. Liberal institutionalists, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of international law and the need for inter-state cooperation through institutions. Liberal discourse suggests that small states should strive to develop regional institutions and join alliances since the size and sensitivity of the territories make them more susceptible to the negative externalities of interdependence.

However, there is a significant dilemma when it comes to the ability of small states to develop and implement specific foreign policy strategies, given the objective indicators of the economic, political, and military dimensions, or their activities in the international community.

Certain experts believe that small-states have three foreign policy choices. First, a passive abandonment strategy; second, an active environmental change in its favor, and third, a defensive one to preserve the status quo. By defining foreign policy as an adaptive form of behavior, Roseanu identified 4 possible foreign policy behaviors of small states. First, indulgent (responding mainly to external changes and demands), second, uncompromising (responding to internal changes and demands); third, promotional (changes and demands from both environments can be disregarded because they cancel each other out; and fourth, preservative (responds to changes and requests from both environments).

Regarding the behavior of small countries in the European Union, many authors note differences in the perception of common policies between small and large members and how they interact with the European Commission. Being part of, or working closely with, the European Union makes it possible for small and middle states to have a greater role to play than they would in the traditional sense. That is one of the main reasons for their engagement within alliances or regional integrations as the backbone of their foreign policy activity.

Due to the complex voting and decision-making mechanisms of the EU, the size-factor has long been present within EU studies as a relevant and significant variable in explaining member states’ activism. Despite the aim of small states to achieve equal representation, there is a huge discrepancy between the power of big and small states within the EU. Therefore, the expected behavior of small states is different from that of the big ones. However, there are also significant differences in foreign policy activism within the group of small EU states.

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed people’s lives, but also the way states act in international relations. The European Union will bear a certain percentage of economic burden for all member states, however, the greater part of that burden – every member state will bear individually. The question is what will be a response from the small EU members like Croatia, Slovenia, Malta, or Cyprus to the new challenges? In a world where the already dominant countries will have even greater power in determining the landscape of the post-pandemic world order?