The EU's many international roles

The European Union plays important roles in diplomacy, trade, development aid and work with global organisations. One of the key tasks of the EEAS is to ensure that all the different activities that the EU performs abroad are consistent and effective. This is particularly important because many of the EU's foreign programmes are organised by different divisions of the European Commission.

Here are just some examples of the roles the European Union plays beyond its borders:

  • Contributor to peace

Through its political, practical and economic support, the EU has played a crucial role in building peace in the Western Balkans since the Yugoslav wars. One shining example is the dialogue facilitated by the European Union between Serbia and Kosovo, which led to a landmark deal in April 2013.

Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is a strategic priority for Europe. The EU is working together with international partners - the United Nations, the United States and Russia - in the 'Quartet'. The EU aims to build a two-state solution, with an independent, democratic Palestinian state existing side-by-side Israel in peace and security.

  • A responsible neighbour

To the east and south of the European Union lie many countries which have undergone – or are still undergoing – tumultuous political change. To ease these transitions, the European Neighbourhood Policy aims to maintain solid and friendly relations with countries at the European Union's borders. Promoting democracy and human rights while opening trade and cooperating on visa issues are some of the Policy's aims.

  • Development partner

Did you know that the EU is the largest single donor of development aid? Together, the Union and its Member States provide more than half of official development assistance (ODA) globally. This contribution makes a huge difference to millions of people's livelihoods around the world.

  • Human rights defender

The Union is committed to human rights and works to ensure they are respected universally. The EU has made human rights a central aspect of its foreign relations and expresses this focus in political dialogues with third countries, in its development policy and aid, and in its participation in multilateral forums, such as the United Nations.

  • Partner to the United Nations

The EU works closely with the United Nations on a host of issues. The Union’s belief in multilateralism reflects an attachment to negotiated, binding rules in international relations. The EU's relation with the United Nations is explicitly spelled out in the Treaty of Lisbon.

  • Force for global security

Under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU operates civilian and military missions worldwide. These missions carry out a variety of tasks, ranging from managing borders to training local police. The Operation EUNAVFOR Atalanta off the coast of Somalia, for example, tackles piracy and protects humanitarian shipments of the World Food Programme.

  • Crisis Response & Humanitarian Aid

The EU and the Member States are the world's largest donor of humanitarian aid. They provide life-saving aid to the victims of disasters, refugees and others in dire need. Humanitarian aid is provided according to vulnerability criteria and needs assessments. This work is coordinated by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).

The European Union responds in a coordinated way to international emergencies of all kinds – earthquakes in Haiti, tsunamis in Japan or flooding in Pakistan. For such emergencies, it can bring together the EU's emergency tools, namely humanitarian aid and civil protection.

  • Advocate of action on climate change

The EU was instrumental in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and is today a major supporter of the UN's effort to create an international climate agreement cutting emissions and limiting global warming. For developing countries, the EU provides substantial development funding to help them face climate change.

  • Trading bloc

The European Union is the world’s largest trading bloc. Trade is a common policy, which means that international trade agreements are negotiated and signed by the Union rather than by individual Member States. This allows the EU to speak with a single voice with international partners as it works to promote a free and fairer international trading system.

  • An expanding union

The EU now counts 28 Members. Since 1957, when the EU's forerunner formed with six countries, the Union has expanded significantly, with the greatest jumps occurring after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. The lure of EU membership and the political and economic stability it brings has meant that many countries aspire to join – although they must first pass tough EU membership tests, including on democracy and the rule of law.