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Over the last five years, ECFR’s annual Scorecard has tracked the European Union’s diminishing ability to influence its neighbours. In 2015, the story became one of their growing impact on the EU.

As refugee numbers spiralled through late summer and autumn, and Islamic State (ISIS)-coordinated terror attacks hit Paris and put Brussels on lockdown, Copenhagen, and Brussels, the conflicts around Europe burned the continent’s political elites and instilled fear in its societies. The arrival of over one million migrants created a dilemma in which the humanitarian obligation to give shelter to refugees is pitted against the limited capacities of EU states, both those on the geographical frontline – the external border – and those where large numbers of refugees want to settle.


In hock to authoritarian regimes

The EU’s impotence in the face of instability outside its borders provided a reminder of the necessity – and the difficulty – of shaping a long-term, coherent, and strategic foreign policy to limit the impact of this turbulence at home. Europeans are fearful that their leaders are unable to manage the growing number of new arrivals. The fake Syrian passport found near the body of one of the suicide attackers in Paris on 13 November played straight into paranoia about the risk that terrorists could use refugee inflows as cover to enter the Schengen area. Evidence that asylum seekers were involved in the coordinated assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve compounded unease about the scale of the integration challenge that parts of Europe now face.

As internal borders went up across the Union in the final months of the year, fewer and fewer leaders felt able to defend the once-sacred EU principle of freedom of movement (the noble exceptions being Germany’s Angela Merkel, despite crushing domestic pressures, and France’s François Hollande, despite the backlash after the Paris attacks). The hard-won deal on relocation of a mere 160,000 refugees from Italy, Greece, and Hungary unravelled, and only 272 had been relocated by the end of December. As the year drew to a close, six Schengen countries had reintroduced border checks, and further limitations to freedom of movement looked likely. However, neither the financial nor the human resources to scale up external border control and get a handle on the crisis were forthcoming from member states or EU institutions.

The EU is dependent on the cooperation of the countries surrounding it to manage this crisis, with migration flows set to increase in 2016. Its neighbours are well aware of this. At both the Valletta summit on migration, held between European and African governments in November, and the EU–Turkey summit, which took place the same month, Europe’s leaders were clearly in the uncomfortable position of demandeur. They were forced to offer significant aid packages to secure support for managing Europe’s borders, with no way of ensuring that their partners would deliver on their side of the bargain. In a year which has seen significant backsliding on the rule of law and freedom of expression in Turkey, the EU was willing to put the prospect of advancing accession talks on the table with scarcely a mention of the Copenhagen criteria on democracy and human rights which prospective members must meet. This is reflected in this year’s Scorecard, where Europe’s support for the rule of law and human rights in Turkey was the second lowest-scoring component in this year’s Scorecard (see Table 2).

At the end of 2015, Europe’s influence on its neighbours continued to decline. The hope of surrounding Europe with a ring of friends has given way to a reality that it is surrounded by a ring of fire. This picture may worsen in the coming year: Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have taken in more than four million refugees between them, which entails deep structural challenges and could have an impact on longer-term regional stability.

But Europe’s influence slipped still further with regard to the great powers of Turkey and Russia. Indeed, their authoritarian governments are increasingly in a position to influence Europe, as its policymakers are forced to turn to them for cooperation. The failure to face the facts sooner – deluding ourselves that conflicts as complex as Syria and Libya would somehow burn themselves out without the need for sufficient diplomatic energy from Europe’s countries – may mean that EU governments now have to function on the terms of leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin who have taken a more realistic approach to (and in no small way been complicit in) the regional trend towards instability.


A more inward-facing Europe

The refugee crisis consumed almost all of Europe’s political and diplomatic energy in the second half of 2015. The EU has the potential to make a difference in tackling both the symptoms and the causes of the refugee crisis: with sustained political attention to the issue, it could begin to address the conflict, instability, and lack of economic prospects in the refugees’ home countries, and develop a strategy to harness the resources of other international actors to this end. But, in 2015, Europe did not rise to the challenge.

This stands in contrast to Europe’s other main foreign policy focus of 2015. The EU played a pivotal role in the diplomatic triumph of the year – July’s nuclear deal with Iran (which is covered in the two highest-scoring components in this year’s Scorecard – see Table 1). The negotiations showed EU diplomacy at its best, with High Representative Federica Mogherini and her team taking a central role and the larger member states playing complementary parts.

However, no comparable level of diplomatic energy was applied to tackling the conflicts and instability that drive refugee flows into Europe. The deep divisions that appeared made it impossible to consider large-scale burden sharing or pooling of resources between member states. Although there was broad agreement that foreign policy strategies should be integral to the management of the refugee crisis – for Europe to tackle the causes of the refugee flow in source and transit countries, as well as dealing with arrivals – this aspect was slow to move forward. The long path between member states recognising over the summer the need for a new deal with Turkey on border control, and actually holding the EU–Turkey summit in late November, is a case in point. Though the Turkey and Valletta summits achieved deals on managing migrant flows, there was little promise that they would have a significant impact on the crisis. And, while the Vienna Process of Syria peace talks got underway in the final part of the year, the EU and its member states were peripheral.



Component Unity Resources Strategy Impact Total Grade
15 – Diplomatic measures and sanctions against Russia 4 4 5 5 18 A
47 – Relations with Iran 4 5 5 4 18 A
58 – Relations with the US on Iran and weapons proliferation 5 5 5 3 18 A
20 – Europe’s diversification of gas-supply routes away from Russia 4 4 5 4 17 A-
27 – Relations with the eastern neighbourhood on trade 5 4 4 4 17 A-
14 – Climate change 4 4 4 4 16 A-
17 – Visa policies towards Russia 4 5 4 3 16 A-
18 – Solidarity on European security 4 4 4 4 16 A-
28 – Visa liberalisation with the eastern neighbourhood 5 4 4 3 16 A-
50 – Relations with the US on Russia and Ukraine 4 4 4 4 16 A-



On security, the failure of political will at the national level to translate into collective action at the EU level was laid bare after the November Paris attacks. Few states responded to Hollande’s call for solidarity in the form of military support – via the invocation of the never-before-used Article 42.7 of the EU treaty – despite the clear demonstration that instability was not just on Europe’s doorstep but had crossed the threshold. (Regional security in the Middle East and North Africa was the lowest-scoring component in this year’s Scorecard – see Table 2.)

Military action alone does not constitute a strong foreign policy, but the unwillingness of so many member states to even countenance it is a bad sign for the future of European power. Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Ireland did offer France additional military support, and the UK followed France’s lead in extending anti-ISIS air strikes from Iraq to Syria. But if the Paris attacks were a wake-up call on the risks of Europe’s declining investment in security over the past decade, the response does not seem to herald renewed foreign policy activism. The exception to this is Germany, which stands out as the only member state whose attitude to security underwent a major positive transition in 2015. Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Berlin has been increasingly willing to pull its weight in security terms.

The events of 2015 called the EU’s very purpose into question. The crisis facing Europe illustrated its limits as a union of values, as a project for spreading stability, and as a club from which members derive mutual support in times of need. Indeed, for certain member states, the Paris attacks were a moment to take a step backwards on solidarity – as demonstrated by the speed with which Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia pulled out of their refugee resettlement commitments.


Europe turned on its head

In 2015, Europe’s habitual performance across the different sections of the Scorecard was turned upside-down. Over the past five years, the EU and its member states consistently performed best (or joint best) on multilateral issues and crisis management. In 2015, however, it had its worst-ever score on this issue – a C+ – as member states flailed in their attempts to cope with the refugee crisis.

By contrast, EU–Russia relations have always been one of the most challenging policy areas for Europe, but this was the Scorecard’s highest-scoring chapter in 2015, with a B+, while three of the ten highest-scoring components related directly to policy on Russia. Last year’s edition praised the EU for a strong performance in coming together to impose sanctions on Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis. In 2015, the EU managed to hold this firm and principled line – renewing sanctions over the summer and linking them to the implementation of the Minsk agreement on the Ukraine conflict – in an even more challenging environment. In 2014, Russia was the number one problem the EU had to deal with; in 2015, it was just one among many. Yet member states stayed relatively united on this, even in the face of challenges such as Moscow’s intervention in Syria.

The EU’s unity on Russia was under increased pressure as 2015 came to a close – with member states such as Italy issuing strong warnings that EU policy will have to adjust to the new environment, where Russia has made itself an important player in the Syria conflict – but it stands as a demonstration of what Europe is capable of.


The fall of the elites and the paradox of German power

The EU’s failure to formulate a strong foreign policy response to the crises of 2015 is due in part to the domestic politics consuming policymakers’ attention. The public backlash across Europe over the negotiations for an EU–US free trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the debate over the handling of the Greek financial crisis in the first half of the year, showed more clearly than ever that Europe’s governments have to answer for their foreign policies at home.

Electorates are fearful of the wars, extremism, and economic meltdown they see both outside and at times inside their borders, and have little trust in the European project to provide answers. The traditional political elites have lost credibility, and citizens are turning to alternatives – political groupings to the left and right, which are often illiberal, nationalist, or anti-European integration. As part of this tide, Poland’s November elections were won by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is sceptical not only of EU institutions but also of fundamental values such as judicial independence. The Danish referendum on their Justice and Home Affairs opt-out in December is also evidence of this trend. The UK government’s entire European perspective is dominated by attempts to renegotiate their relationship with the EU and secure reforms that will be sufficient to convince eurosceptics that the EU can move in a positive direction (and to convince European colleagues that London has a positive agenda on Europe). France finished the year with the ruling Socialist party forced to withdraw from some local elections to tactically prevent the Front National profiting from the year’s crises, through their populist, nationalist, and security-centric vision. This broader picture feeds into a vicious circle, since preoccupation with internal politics is a handicap on European governments’ capacity to seek collective solutions to today’s crises.

The refugee crisis has also created a paradox of German power. The one consistent force keeping the European show on the road throughout 2015 was the leadership of Germany – specifically Merkel. This stand-out role is as much about the weak leadership by the other large states, which valiant efforts by medium-sized states such as the Netherlands and Sweden can only partially compensate for.

Through the Ukraine crisis and the Greek financial crisis, Germany was the decisive voice arguing that EU states had to accept tough compromises in the interests of Europe’s longer-term stability. And, as the leader board in this year’s Scorecard shows, Germany displayed leadership on eight of the 12 critical external policy challenges that the EU faced in 2015. But as the year wore on, Germany’s ability to lead and carry other member states with it began to wane, though its economic strength meant that, as primary creditor in the Greek crisis, it was able to impose the austerity-centred response that it favoured. As the refugee crisis surged in late summer, and Merkel stood up to say that the EU had a moral responsibility and capacity to welcome refugees, it was clear that she was going to have to lead by example. Through late autumn, Merkel’s message of openness came under severe attack across the German political establishment and even within her own party.


'Leaders' and 'slackers' among EU member states
Top “leaders”   Top “slackers”  
Country # of leader rankings Country # of slacker rankings
Germany 8 Lithuania 3
Netherlands 5 Poland 3
Sweden 5 Malta 2
UK 5 Belgium 2
France 4 Bulgaria 2
Lithuania 3 Croatia 2
Poland 3 Cyprus 2
Austria 2 France 2
Czech Republic 2 Greece 2
Denmark 2 Portugal 2
Estonia 2 Romania 2
Italy 2 Slovakia 2
Latvia 2 Spain 2
Bulgaria 1 UK 2
Finland 1 Czech Republic 1
Luxembourg 1 Estonia 1
Romania 1 Finland 1
Slovakia 1 Germany 1
Spain 1 Hungary 1
    Latvia 1
    Luxembourg 1
    The Netherlands 1
    Slovenia 1



There has been a growing call among the EU policy community in the last five years for Germany to extend its leadership beyond budgetary issues, but now that it has taken on a leadership role on foreign affairs, justice, and home affairs, other member states have become wary. In the second half of 2015, Germany had to rely on hard power as well as soft power to push initiatives forward in the EU – such as threatening cuts in EU structural funding to countries that opposed the autumn refugee relocation deal, and overriding dissenters by pushing the issue to a qualified majority vote. These coercive tactics have led to growing uneasiness about German power among other member states, and resistance has mounted, with some refusing to implement the agreements. In this way, German power within the EU decision-making structure has been exposed as a paper tiger. This has implications across the spectrum of European policymaking. Though Germany may continue to use its considerable leverage within the Union to manage the refugee crisis, there is a risk that it may focus on its own interests, and have less room to exert leadership on other European challenges.

The lack of support for Germany’s new leadership role doesn’t just come from the usual suspects among reluctant Europeans – although the UK’s disavowal of Europe’s crisis as someone else’s problem has been striking, and the Orban government’s willingness to use violence and criminalisation to deter refugees from entering Hungary has been shocking. In 2004, the EU took in ten new member states which were keen through their first decade of membership to demonstrate their reliability as part of the European club. But 2015 has shown that almost all member states’ attachment to the European project has limits: as the UK moves towards its referendum on membership, some Central and Eastern European countries (many of whom have had little experience with refugees in recent decades) are showing that they are willing to refuse compromise and raise the stakes in negotiations on the refugee crisis.


A Europe driven by member states

As the EU enters a year in which refugee flows are set to increase, Germany looks ever more isolated in its efforts to manage the domestic challenges of refugee reception and integration, and at the same time push Europe towards a more proactive foreign policy. Sweden, which faced even higher pressure per capita in terms of refugee arrivals than Germany in 2015, announced in November that it would reinstate border controls and could turn away migrants without travel documents. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has become increasingly vocal on the impossibility of a European response to the migration crisis without greater political will from the member states, while the larger members, including France and the UK, as well as High Representative Mogherini, are all unable or unwilling at present to drive a joint foreign policy response.

Germany’s lonely position exposes a fundamental issue in the EU’s structure: without powerful central institutions, there is no safety net for the Union. The trend of leadership coming from member states rather than Brussels – with Germany increasingly dominant – which the Scorecard has tracked for the past five years, became clearer than ever in 2015. As Germany carries too much of Europe’s load on the refugee crisis, the EU itself becomes disproportionately exposed to the risk that Merkel’s government could fall victim to growing domestic doubts. Many in the country felt that European support for Germany is insufficient, and that the price of integrating so many refugees is too high. If Merkel were no longer able to play the central role in the European response to the crisis that has carried the EU so far, the Union would be even more vulnerable.

Member state leadership can mask the absence of Europe-wide political will, but ultimately cannot solve it. EU institutions have of course taken initiatives – perhaps most importantly the Commission’s December “Borders Package” proposals to beef up border agency Frontex and establish a European Borders and Coast Guard – but these have so far met with insufficient support and resources from member states. Efforts by the Commission and Council presidents to show leadership in pushing through the mandatory relocation deal in late summer were perceived by some member states as divisive, or as a case of the institutions doing the bidding of Berlin – as with the October Western Balkans Summit, which excluded many member states.


Component Unity Resources Strategy Impact Total Grade
41 – Regional security in the Middle East and North Africa 1 2 0 1 4 D+
37 – Rule of law, democracy, and human rights in Turkey 2 1 1 1 5 D+
62 – Trade and investment with China 1 3 1 1 6 C-
40 – Rule of law, human rights, and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa 3 1 1 1 6 C-
2 – Response to refugee arrivals in Europe 2 2 2 1 7 C-
42 – Relations with Egypt 3 1 2 1 7 C-
45 – Conflicts in Syria and Iraq 3 2 1 1 7 C-
49 – Conflict in Yemen 2 2 2 1 7 C-


Looking forward to 2016

One key issue to watch in 2016 is the question of how the EU will deal with Turkey in this new geopolitical environment, which has implications that go well beyond refugee inflows to Europe. Although EU states have already recognised the need to rethink how they work with Turkey – given its pivotal role in the conflicts plaguing the Middle East, and as a transit zone for migrants on the EU’s south-eastern border – the EU–Turkey summit was slow in coming together. Even after it took place, implementation, including delivering the aid package promised to Ankara, has been lacking.

Though EU states performed strongly on the Russia relationship in 2015, Turkey will challenge EU’s Russia strategy in the coming year, thanks to the deepening complexity of the Moscow–Ankara relationship in the last months of 2015. Other issues that will complicate Europe’s approach to Russia include the Syria conflict and relations with Iran post-nuclear deal. Mogherini’s Global Strategy Review, due to conclude by summer 2016, could help by providing a context to bring member states together to work through these upcoming challenges.

But despite the scale of the foreign policy challenges, there were positive signs towards the end of the year that the EU could muster the strength to rise to them. The COP21 climate change deal in Paris was a triumph for internationalism and for the EU’s ambition to tackle climate change. Despite major security challenges and a fearsome mountain of negotiation that had to be climbed, the conference showed that the global community is capable of coming together to face a common challenge. The standing ovation for Merkel after her defence of her refugee policy at her party’s annual conference in December showed the power of effective communication of policy to face down opposition. In France, the Front National did not win control of any regional assemblies in the December elections, in spite of the climate of fear after the November attacks on Paris, because the political establishment was willing to cooperate and make a tactical sacrifice in the face of the threat to shared values.

As the EU moves into a challenging year ahead, perhaps the first step along the road back to European power is to rediscover their self-belief as Europeans and focus on these achievements. It is only from this starting point that the embattled European project can be defended, drawing from the strengths which took the Union to its high point in the early 2000s, but which have increasingly lain dormant in recent years.


scores summary
COMPONENTS BY ISSUE 2011   2012   2013   2014   2015  
  Score Grade Score Grade Score Grade Score Grade Score Grade
RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA 10.0 C+ 11.0 B- 10.2 C+ 11.4 B- 13.4 B+
RELATIONS WITH WIDER EUROPE 9.5 C+ 10.3 C+ 10.8 B- 11.0 B- 11.5 B-
RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES 11.0 B- 11.7 B- 11.6 B- 13.1 B 13.1 B
RELATIONS WITH ASIA & CHINA 9.0 C 9.7 C+ 11.0 B- 10.5 B- 10.2 C+