What role for the EU High Representative during the Covid-19 crisis? Reflections on Potential Avenues of Research


By Giulia Tercovich and Maria Giulia Amadio Vicerè (8 May 2020)



Ten years ago the Lisbon Treaty reformed the role of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP) and established the European External Action Service (EEAS). How are these institutional actors addressing today’s Covid-19 crisis? By examining the HR/VP and EEAS’ activities in response to the Covid-19 crisis this contribution provides insights on both the supranational dimension of EU external action and the intergovernmental Common Foreign and Security Policy. 

Even if it is too early to provide answers, this contribution looks at the role of the HR/VP as Vice President of the European Commission responsible for the coordination among the Commissioners with external portfolios, as chair of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), as representative of the EU in international meetings and as leader of the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and of the EEAS and it provides some preliminary reflections on the current developments in EU foreign policy through the lenses of academic research and suggests future avenues of research.



Not only the origins, but also the potential solutions to the Covid-19 global crisis lay in the qualifying features of the globalized world we are living in. While the health emergency is still heavily affecting the European continent, national and EU leaders are mainly concentrated on coordinating their respective responses. Yet, at time when the rest of the world is closing in on itself, Europe should open up to address the pandemic. In a deeply interconnected world, the initial lack of information sharing and international coordination catalysed the spread of this deadly virus. Through its wide range of policy instruments and resources, the EU may be a crucial actor in the international response to this global emergency and its implications, both in Europe’s neighbourhood and in the wider international arena. 

Policy analysts have already started discussing changes in European foreign affairs during and after the Covid-19 crisis (see Bunde et al. 2020Major and Mölling 2020). This does not come as a surprise. Foreign policy has been under the spotlight in the post-Lisbon era. Ukraine, Syria, Iran and the civil war in Libya cannot be simply swept under the rug. Not to mention the EU relations with China, Russia, the US, and the erosion of multilateralism. Added to this, the Covid-19 pandemic is a text-book example of a multifaceted crisis. And as such, it will inevitably have implications on these and other policy dossiers. 

Scholarly work on Covid-19’s impact on European foreign affairs is likely to multiply in the future as well. Against this backdrop, examining the activities of the current High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission (HR/VP), Joseph Borrell, allows to shed light on both the supranational dimension of EU external action and the intergovernmental Common Foreign and Security Policy (Amadio Viceré 2018). Not only can such an examination provide crucial insights on the implications of Covid-19 on EU governance, but it can also highlight future avenues of research on EU foreign policy. Here they are.

First, as Vice President of the European Commission, the HR/VP should guarantee the coordination among the Commissioners working on the EU’s external action. The Commission repeatedly stated that the European continent is facing a global crisis that cannot be solved without international cooperation and coordination (see European Commission 2020European Council 2020). It is in this context that HR/VP Borrell launched the Team Europe Package (European Commission 2020), a series of measures initiated by the EU Commission in coordination with member states to help the most vulnerable developing countries. One might argue that this is mainly a reallocating exercise of already existing funding. Nonetheless, future analyses could investigate the implications of this initiative on the evolution of EU crisis management (Boin, Ekengren and Rhinard 2013; Morsut 2014; Tercovich 2014; Tercovich 2018), particularly in Africa and in the Middle East and North Africa region. Be it under the label of “comprehensive approach” during HR/VP Ashton’s mandate, or of “joined-up approach” in the HR/VP Mogherini’s EU Global Strategy, the coordination of EU internal and external instruments has sparked  intense scholarly discussions after the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty (see Amadio Viceré 2014; Schuntz and Damro 2019). In addition to this, as the pandemic is likely to spur the Western Balkans’ political backsliding and enduring poverty, the EU political and economic support to this region through this package – or other initiatives - might decide the fate on EU enlargement process, another highly debated topic in academia (see Börzel et al 2017; Economides 2020).

Second, the HR/VP chairs the Council of the EU’s meetings among member states’ foreign, defence, trade and development ministers (FAC). While these meetings generally take place on a monthly basis, there have been already six of them since mid-March 2020. At the same time, although the European Council generally takes place once a month, since early March 2020 the heads of state and government already met three times to discuss the European response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Not surprisingly, the Covid-19 crisis influenced the FAC’s agenda, which is generally set by the HR/VP. The focus of the FAC shifted away from Iraq, Libya and Syria, the situation in the Sahel and the Middle East Peace Process, as well as from discussions about the role of climate diplomacy - a priority for the von der Leyen Commission -. The EU response to Covid-19 and its geopolitical consequences, in turn, have been the main topics on the table for discussion. Indeed, both the frequency of these meetings, as well as their agenda during the crisis, seem to support the new intergovernmentalist scholarly narrative about an increase of integration through coordination among national governments at times of crisis (Bickerton et al 2014; Fabbrini and Puetter 2016).

The pandemic did not only influence foreign ministers’ discussions, but also their working methods. This is one of the puzzles triggered by recent events, that will require further research. Since the end of March 2020 EU intergovernmental forums have taken place by video conference. Future scholarly work might assess if, and if so how, these necessary adjustments impacted on HR/VP’s ability as FAC chair to solve collective action problems in decentralized bargaining. Such work could provide crucial inputs to existing studies on the rotating Council presidency (see Tallberg 2006; Puetter 2014). Furthermore, while ‘coffee-break’ diplomacy is an essential element of negotiations, this has been even more so at the EU level. At least up until the beginning of the pandemic. Hence, whether and the extent to which this informal component will remain an essential feature of the EU negotiations in the post-Covid world remains open to question (Delreux and Keukeleire 2017; Aggestam and Bicchi 2019).

Third, the HR/VP represents the EU in international meetings, alongside the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. In principle, this institutional actor can embody the EU’s inherent multilateralism while doing so. The EU has generally boasted of its committed to multilateralism, not least in the 2016 EU Global Strategy. Indeed, in the past months, the HR/VP Borrell has continued contacts with international actors and organizations to participate in the coordination of the international response to Covid-19. For instance, the HR/VP called for a temporary suspension of US regime’ sanctions to facilitate humanitarian assistance to Iran and Venezuela and lobbied for more support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for most vulnerable countries at risk. Borrell was also quite vocal about President Trump’s decision to withdraw US funding from the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the meantime, fighting misinformation and narratives that aim at diminishing the EU role in response to the crisis within and outside the EU seems to be high on the HR/VP’s list of priorities. Not only did Borrell repeatedly address this issue in public, but he also coined the term “info-demic”. As scholarly literature has extensively investigated EU stance in global governance (Laatikianen and Smith 2006; Smith 2011; Niemann and Bretherton 2013; Koops and Macaj 2014), further research may assess whether indeed the EU managed to maintained a normative and cooperative approach (Arteaga and Simon 2020) over the course of this pandemic, as well as the effectiveness of its inter-organizational relations in time of crisis (Jørgensen and Laatikainen 2013; Biermann and Koops 2017).

Fourth, the HR/VP is also in charge of the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Under the leadership of the previous HR/VP Federica Mogherini, the theme of defence industrial consolidation got momentum (Tocci 2018). Yet, the budgetary cuts that member states might adopt because of the economic fallout that will inevitably follow this health emergency are likely to hinder the recent advancements in this regard. There is a tangible risk that the national resources devoted to initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) or the European Defence Fund (EDF) will be significantly reduced.  Cutting in defence budgets is certainly not wise for Europe in the long-term. Scholars might be interested in investigating whether the global pandemic might hamper the EU efforts to reduce its helplessness in the defence realm.

Finally, the HR/VP directs the European External Action Service, the diplomatic corps of the EU, including the over 140 EU delegations and the eighteen Common Security and Defence (CSDP) - civilian and military- missions around the world. Not surprisingly, over the past weeks, the EEAS has been particularly busy in facing the crisis. Making an extraordinary and unprecedented effort, the EU consular cooperation supported the repatriation of 500.000 EU citizens. So far, CSDP operations and missions have remained operational, although their work has been limited in some situations. On some occasion, these missions supported the local response to the virus (e.g. Somalia and Mali). Scholars might investigate the long-term impact of Covid-19 on the EEAS crisis response system (Tercovich 2014) and of the EU diplomatic capacity (Carta 2013; Spence and Batora 2015). Furthermore, leadership scholars will have to keep all these situational factors (Tömmel 2013) in mind when they will assess the role of the third post-Lisbon HR/VP during his first months in office (Aggestam and Johansson 2017).

Turning preliminary observations into research is no easy task, especially when events continue developing in an unexpected – and even rhapsodic – manner. It will take time to assess the role of the HR/VP during the Covid-19 crisis. Hopefully, through this contribution, we managed to pinpoint some of the facts that are likely to deserve close attention from the EU foreign policy scholarly community in the future.


About the Authors

Giulia Tercovich

Dr. Giulia Tercovich is Assistant Professor at Vesalius College (VUB). She has a double-doctoral degree in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick (UK) and Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium). Her research interests include EU Crisis Management, Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection, EU interregional relations (mainly with ASEAN, AU, GCC), and EU inter-organizational relations (UN and NATO), Political leadership, as well as innovative and active higher education.

Maria Giulia Amadio Vicerè

Dr. Maria Giulia Amadio Vicerè is a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Political Science of Luiss University. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the Luiss School of Government and a researcher within a Horizon 2020 Project on ‘EU Differentiation, Dominance and Democracy’. In addition to this, Maria Giulia is Associate Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), where she works on research projects on EU institutions and policies, particularly with regard to EU foreign policy towards Europe’s neighbourhood.



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