The European Union is a global player, a fact that will be highlighted again this week by two important informal meetings of EU ministers.

Foreign ministers of EU member states meet on a regular basis under the chairmanship of High Representative Josep Borrell to discuss foreign policy issues and agree on joint positions in the context of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

This week, the so-called “Gymnich” meeting will take place in Berlin. It has traditionally been a foreign policy highlight of any Presidency of the Council of the EU. Member states’ defence ministers will also meet this week for an informal exchange within the context of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), an integral part of the CFSP.

The CFSP’s current structure was established in 2009, when the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force; its foundation was laid during Germany’s last Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2007. But what preceded the CFSP?

There was no such thing as common foreign and security policy as initial steps towards European integration were taken in the early 1950s. When the European Economic Community (EEC) was created with the Treaty of Rome (1958), informal government cooperation evolved on issues related to common external action. In the early 1970s, this became officially known as European Political Cooperation (EPC).

With the goal of establishing a frank exchange based on trust, a first Informal Meeting of Foreign Ministers was held at Castle Gymnich near Bonn in 1974. The encounter was seen as so constructive that these meetings become a tradition. To this day, an Informal Meeting of Foreign Ministers in the so-called Gymnich format is held during every Presidency of the Council of the EU, taking its name from that very first meeting near Bonn.

The creation of the CFSP

Little by little, European Political Cooperation became substantive beyond that which had been agreed in the European Treaties. In 1984, this cooperation was given a proper legal foundation for the first time with the Single European Act (SEA). Therein, heads of state and government gathering in Milan declared not only their shared intention to establish a European Union, but also introduced foreign policy cooperation into the European Treaties.

Political cooperation was taken to a new level with the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993: the agreement officially created the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The CFSP ensured that Europe was able to act in matters of foreign and security policy, for example, by formulating common positions with the possibility of taking joint action. It has been continuously expanded upon – the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s exposed deficiencies, for example. Against the backdrop of these experiences, with the signing of the Treaty of Nice in 2001, Europeans for the first time created common defence policy instruments, including the European Union Military Committee (EUMC) and Military Staff (EUMS), the Politico-Military Group (PMG) and the Committee for Civilian Aspects of Crisis Management (CIVCOM).

When the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force in 2009, another large step was taken in the development of common external action: the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is supported by the newly created European External Action Service (EEAS) that he oversees, enabled greater coherence and continuity in the field of European foreign policy, giving Europe greater clout in the international arena.

What lies ahead for the CFSP

Since the early days of Europe’s common foreign policy, the world has evolved considerably. The EU has grown from 12 to 27 member states, and geopolitical and geostrategic priorities are undergoing fundamental change. New actors are stepping onto the global stage, and the world is characterised by geopolitical competition and new uncertainties. More than ever, we are called on to defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

After an Informal Meeting of EU Foreign Ministers by videoconference on 14 August 2020, and the Special European Council on Belarus a few days ago , this week will again see discussions on the situation in Belarus, in the eastern Mediterranean and in Libya, as well as on other issues. Also on the agenda are relations between the EU and Russia.

The current political situation brings into bold relief the importance of advancing an international order based on rules, solidarity, sustainability and multilateral cooperation. The German Presidency of the Council of the EU is committed to this goal – because Europe is needed now more than ever, as an anchor of stability and an effective and influential power.