Single Representative, Single Voice: Magical Thinking and the Representation of the EU on the World Stage

It is frequently argued that the EU should speak with a single voice on the international stage in order to play an effective role in the field of foreign policy. The representation of the EU by a single representative is often viewed as a remedy to this lack of a single voice. This article analyzes that argument and asks whether the relative disillusionment that followed the appointment of a president of the European Council and of a high representative of the EU suggests that stronger EU representation on the world stage is needed. The article argues that equating the institutionalization of a single representative with an ability on the part of the EU to speak with a single voice amounts to ‘magical thinking’ because no institutional engineering can overcome member states’ divisions. Furthermore, different successful cases of external action led by a few member states in spite of the lack of unanimity show that the single voice is an unhelpful myth. Lastly, the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty reforms reveals that the EU does not need stronger external representation and that any principle of representation relying on personalization should be dismissed as inadequate in the EU context.

The idea of a single voice as a necessary condition for EU foreign policy should be abandoned. The obsession with consensus and apparent cohesion is unjustified and can even be harmful. Disagreements among member states should not be considered a major hurdle to collective action because experience shows that they do not prevent the effective external action of subgroups of member states.
Institutional reforms aimed at ‘embodying’ the EU by giving it a face or representing it through charismatic leaders are unsuited to the EU context. Collegial direction is preferable. No additional principle of external representation should be introduced, although the principles of external representation as laid down in the Lisbon Treaty should be clarified.
The democratic election of a president of the EU would add a new type of problem to existing ones, notably by feeding populism and nationalism, impoverishing the political debate and weakening the EU's unity.