European Union Foreign Policy and the Global Climate Regime

by Simon Schunz (Author)
Monographs 371 Pages
Open Access


Ever since the first international negotiations on climate change in the early 1990s, the European Union has aspired to play a leading role in global climate politics.
This book engages in a longitudinal analysis of the EU’s participation in and impact on the United Nations climate regime.
It provides not only comprehensive insights into the evolution of EU foreign climate policy, but also a thought-provoking audit of the potential and limits of the EU’s influence in a major domain of global affairs.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acronyms and Abbreviations
  • Foreword and Acknowledgements
  • Introduction. Rationale of the Study
  • The EU, Climate Change and Global Climate Politics
  • The Structure of the Study
  • Chapter 1. Analytical Framework: Studying the European Union’s Influence on the Global Climate Regime
  • Building the Key Concepts: Influence Attempts and Influence
  • Setting the Theoretical Scene: Insights from EU Foreign Policy Analysis and Regime Theory
  • Methodological Bases: Analysing and Determining Influence
  • Chapter 2. Historical Foundations (1980s–1995): EU Influence on the Set-up of the Global Climate Regime
  • The Pre-negotiation Phase: From Scientific Circles to First Political Negotiations
  • The EU’s Influence on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1991–1992)
  • The Road to COP 1 (1992–1995)
  • Chapter 3. From the Berlin Mandate to the Kyoto Protocol (1995–1997): EU Influence on the First Development of the Global Climate Regime
  • The Context: Major Developments in Global Politics and Climate Science
  • Key Actors in the Global Climate Regime and their Positions
  • The Negotiation Process and the EU’s Influence Attempts
  • The Outcome: the Kyoto Protocol
  • The EU’s Influence Attempts: Extracting Patterns
  • The EU’s Influence in the Kyoto Protocol Negotiations
  • Explaining the EU’s Influence during the Period 1995 to 1997
  • Chapter 4. From the Buenos Aires Action Plan to the Year 2007 (1998–2007): EU Influence on the Consolidation of the Global Climate Regime
  • COP 4 to COP 7: From the Buenos Aires Action Plan to the Marrakech Accords (1998–2001)
  • After the Marrakech Accords: Ensuring Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol (2002–2004)
  • Towards a Post-2012 Regime: Loose Talks on the Way to Bali (2005–2007)
  • Determining and Explaining the EU’s Influence during the Period 1998 to 2007
  • Chapter 5. From the Bali Roadmap to the Copenhagen Accord (2007–2009): EU Influence on the Post-2012 Global Climate Negotiations
  • The Context: Major Developments in Global Politics and Climate Science
  • Key Actors in the Global Climate Regime and their Positions
  • The Negotiation Process and the EU’s Influence Attempts
  • The Outcome: the Copenhagen Accord
  • The EU’s Influence Attempts: Extracting Patterns
  • The EU’s Influence in the Post-2012 Climate Negotiations until 2009
  • Explaining the EU’s Influence during the Period 2007 to 2009
  • Chapter 6. Gradually “Back on Track” (2010–2012): EU Influence on the Resumed Post-2012 Global Climate Negotiations
  • The Context: Major Developments in Global Politics and Climate Science
  • Key Actors in the Global Climate Regime and their Positions
  • The Negotiation Process and the EU’s Influence Attempts
  • The Outcomes: the Cancun Agreements, the Durban Package and the Doha Gateway
  • Determining and Explaining the EU’s Influence during the Period 2010 to 2012
  • Chapter 7. Explaining EU Influence on the Global Climate Regime
  • Patterns of EU Influence across Time
  • Comparing EU Influence Attempts to its Actual Influence: the “Goodness of Fit” Puzzle
  • Determinants of EU Influence over Time: Propositions on Causal Mechanisms and their Scope Conditions
  • Conclusion
  • Major Findings of the Study and their Significance
  • Research and Normative Implications of the Study
  • References
  • Annexes
  • Index
  • Series index

← 14 | 15 →Foreword and Acknowledgements

This book is the fruit of a long-term research project on a fascinating topic: climate change and the role of the EU in the global attempts to combat it. It comprises the significantly revised version of my doctoral dissertation, defended in October 2010 at the University of Leuven (KULeuven). Neither this book nor the thesis would have seen the light of day without the intellectual input of my supervisors, Prof. Hans Bruyninckx (KULeuven, European Environment Agency) and Prof. Stephan Keukeleire (KULeuven, College of Europe), to whom I feel deeply indebted. I am equally thankful to Prof. Bart Kerremans, Prof. Jan Wouters (KULeuven, Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies) and the external assessors, Prof. Philipp Pattberg (Free University of Amsterdam) and Prof. John Vogler (Keele University), for serving on the doctoral jury that assessed the thesis. The study would not have been written without the financial support provided through the interdisciplinary KULeuven Impuls project “The European Union and multilateral governance” (2006–2010). I would also like to express my gratitude to the editors of the College of Europe Studies series, particularly Prof. Sieglinde Gstöhl, as well as to the team at Peter Lang’s Brussels office.

Many of my colleagues affiliated with the Institute for International and European Policy and the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies made valuable contributions to this research project over the years. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Rouba Al-Fattal, Sue Basu, David Belis, Dr. Sofie Bouteligier, Dr. Tim Corthaut, Prof. Tom Delreux, Dr. Sijbren de Jong, Dr. Ana Maria Dobre, Prof. Edith Drieskens, Dr. Sander Happaerts, Björn Koopmans, Dr. Montserrat Gonzalez-Garibay, Dr. Kolja Raube, Dr. Karoline Van den Brande and Dr. Louise van Schaik. Special mention goes to Jed Odermatt, who provided support to improve the linguistic quality of this study.

The research project also benefitted greatly from numerous exchanges with policy-makers and observers of the intra-EU and global climate negotiations. I am indebted to my interview partners and many other professionals involved in processes of global and European climate politics, who generously shared their thoughts with me.

Last but not least, I would like to warmly thank my family and friends for their support throughout the process of researching for and writing up this study. Above all, I feel enormously indebted to Hélène.← 15 | 16 →


Rationale of the Study

This book combines the analysis of two topis that have immensely gained in political importance over the past two decades: the foreign and external policies of the European Union (EU) and global climate change. The EU is still a relatively recent player on the global scene, even when it comes to the environment, arguably the domain – beyond trade – in which it has made the first and most visible steps to become acknowledged as a foreign policy actor in its own right (Bruyninckx 2005: 213–214). Yet, especially since the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the EU’s capacity and ambitions to shape global politics have grown considerably. This is especially true in an area that has equally obtained ever-increasing attention in the past twenty years: climate change – one, if not “the defining challenge of our generation” (United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Reuters 2007a). Following the first compelling natural scientific insights into the risks associated with anthropogenic interference with the global climate, this collective action challenge was for the first time politically tackled at a global level in the early 1990s. Initial negotiations under United Nations (UN) auspices led to the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, in force since 1994). Since then, attempts to complement the soft legal framework convention so as to foster durable global solutions to the climate problematique have been ongoing in the UN regime, with the intermediate results embodied in the Kyoto Protocol (in force since 2005) and the Cancun Agreements of 2010.

By bringing these two topics together, the study intends to provide an in-depth understanding and explanation of how the European Union behaves, and what effects its behaviour yields, in global climate politics. In so doing, it conceives of climate change as an ever more “important foreign policy issue” (Ott 2001a). It consequently treats the EU’s activities targeted at the global climate regime not simply as the external dimension of intra-EU climate and energy policies – and thus as a part of its external relations – but as genuine foreign policy.1 EU foreign policy is understood as “that area of [EU] politics which is directed at the external ← 17 | 18 →environment with the objective of influencing that environment and the behaviour of other actors within it, in order to pursue interests, values and goals” (Keukeleire/MacNaughtan 2008: 19). Indeed, the primary objective of EU activities in the global climate regime has been, rather than maintaining external relations with third parties, that of influencing this regime and the behaviour of other actors within it for the purpose of protecting the climate in line with EU interests, values and goals. If one considers the EU thus as a foreign policy player in global climate politics and intends to scrutinize its activities, influence becomes a key measure for its effectiveness.

Closely accompanying the evolution of the EU’s external and foreign environmental policies, the political and academic debates about the EU’s role on the global scene have regularly observed that the Union was “recognized as a leader” (Sbragia 2000: 312; Zito 2005) with “extensive influence in the politics of the global environment” (Vogler 2005: 848). In the academic debate on the EU’s role in global climate politics more specifically (see, above all, Bäckstrand/Elgström 2013; Wurzel/Connelly 2010; Oberthür et al. 2010; Parker/Karlsson 2010; Lindenthal 2009; Costa 2009; Schreurs/Tiberghien 2007; Harris 2007; Groenleer/van Schaik 2007; Pallemaerts/Williams 2006; Pallemaerts 2004), the scrutiny of its proactive approach in this domain has led to claims that “EU leadership in international climate policy over the past 15 years or so has remained largely unrivalled” (Oberthür 2007: 79). Such claims have regularly been based on studies that employ the analytical concept of “leadership” (Gupta/Grubb 2000; Gupta/Ringius 2001). Most importantly, the notion of directional leadership has repeatedly been used to describe how the EU attempts to show the way, employing “perceptions and solutions developed domestically as a ‘model’ to diffuse internationally” (Grubb/Gupta 2000: 21). The Union’s “model” first took shape in the late 1990s and early 2000s, partially as a result of internal regime creation aimed at strategy-building in reaction to international developments (Pallemaerts 2004: 42–56). A flagship initiative in this regard was the establishment of an Emissions Trading System (ETS) that has been in operation since 2005 (Skjaerseth/Wettestad 2008). In 2008/2009, a major climate and energy package was then adopted, lifting the EU’s acquis to a new level of harmonization in these domains (Morgera et al. 2011). In the face of these evolutions, claims about EU “leadership by example” have resonated well with popular intra-EU political discourse about the Union as a “green power” and global climate leader, notably prior to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit (e.g. Barroso 2008).

In stark contrast to much of these debates and to the European Union’s apparently persistently high and, at least until the 2009 Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen (COP 15), even steadily increased level of ← 18 | 19 →proactivity as a global climate player, the effects of its activities have, at first sight, been limited across time. For the early 1990s, it had been observed that “the EU had a comparatively limited impact on the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol” (Oberthür/Roche-Kelly 2008: 36). After years of stalemate in the global regime, it then seemingly suffered a severe setback regarding both its reputation and objectives when it became partially side-lined in the final stages of the 2009 COP 15 where none of its major proposals made it into the “Copenhagen Accord”. The most striking observation from these debates, and prima facie from the evolution of EU participation in the global climate regime more generally, is thus a strong discrepancy between an almost linear increase in EU activity as a global climate player and the apparently limited impact it has had over time. This observation forms the major puzzle that this book addresses. To do so in a systematic manner, the study responds to three closely intertwined research questions:

Question 1: How did/does the European Union attempt to exert influence on the multilateral negotiations pertaining to the development2 of the global climate regime?

Question 2: Did the European Union actually exert influence on the multilateral negotiations pertaining to the development of the global climate regime?

Question 3: Why did/does the European Union exert influence on the multilateral negotiations pertaining to the development of the global climate regime?

The responses to these questions contribute to the current political and academic debates in four main ways. First, the study adds to these debates by providing comprehensive empirical knowledge about what the Union has done and does in global climate negotiations and what effects this has (had), especially in answer to questions 1 and 2. To this end, a longer, discontinued time frame is considered necessary so as to overcome the “presentism bias” of many EU foreign policy analyses (Jørgensen 2007). Cross-time comparisons allow for a clearer understanding of the EU’s influence on the global climate regime, which has gone through several phases. After negotiations on the Framework Convention itself (1991–1992), the regime awaited its formal confirmation (1992–1995). Ratification of the UNFCCC was followed by a novel negotiation phase resulting in the Kyoto Protocol (1995–1997). Subsequently, several conferences of the parties had to prepare for the ratification of the Protocol (1997–2005). finally, post-2012 negotiations were started, first loosely (2005–2007) and then more intensely, with the intermediate outcome of the Copenhagen ← 19 | 20 →Accord (2007–2009), later formally integrated into the UN regime by the Cancun Agreements (2010). The 2011 Durban Package and the 2012 Doha Gateway then re-started negotiations on a legally binding global agreement. These time periods are regrouped into five phases that are analysed in depth (1991–1995, 1995–1997, 1998–2007, 2007–2009, 2010–2012). Second, the study contributes to the debates in conceptual-­theoretical terms by advancing the understanding of why the EU does or does not have an impact on global politics. Within the discipline of EU foreign policy analysis, the study thus inserts itselfinto emergent debates on the EU’s performance/external effectiveness as a foreign policy actor by developing the concept of influence as a measure of effectiveness and by providing, in answer to questions 2 and 3, a better understanding and explanation of the Union’s impact in the studied regime (Jørgensen et al. 2011; Dee 2013). To this end, explanatory factors from the EU and international levels of analysis are considered and combined. Moreover, a close scrutiny of the instruments and resources the Union utilizes as a foreign policy player advances the state of the art on the link between EU foreign policy tools, influence and, ultimately, foreign policy effectiveness. This closely ties in with the third contribution made by this work, which concerns methodology. By developing a method that integrates the mapping of EU activity and the assessment and explanation of its impact, the study refines the toolbox of the discipline of (EU) foreign policy analysis. A fourth contribution results from the normative and political-­practical relevance of the research. The study produces insights into the EU’s performance in global politics that allow for an appreciation of whether it actually lives up to the expectations it creates by evoking certain conceptions – such as “leadership” – of its own global role, notably in the significant policy domain of climate change.

By precisely tracing the EU’s activities and their effects on the global climate regime across time, the study challenges and nuances some of the claims made in current debates. It demonstrates how the EU has gradually made itself the champion of the global fight against climate change, trying hard, and through various means, to get a grip on the regime. It also shows, however, how and why the Union has oftentimes failed to effectively do so. Although the study demonstrates that the EU has, at least since the mid-1990s, indeed been a very, if not the most proactive foreign climate policy player, its activities qualify best as attempted – but regularly unsuccessful – leadership. A number of reasons related to both the external context and internal prerequisites for EU activities, but especially the often underestimated interplay between these two, conceptually embodied in the very notion of foreign policy, can account for this lack of success.

← 20 | 21 →The EU, Climate Change and Global Climate Politics

Analysing the contents and effects of the EU’s foreign policy represents a general interest of many EU foreign policy specialists, as illustrated by Karen Smith (2007: 12–13, 2010):

Much more research needs to be done on the EU’s influence in the wider world, and particularly on the EU’s impact on the international system (…), and its actual impact on outsiders (…) (does the EU influence them and how?). Too often, we lapse into assertions that the EU has either considerable or little influence, without the backing of clear, substantial evidence for such influence. ‘Proving’ the EU has influence (or not, and what sort and why) requires considerable empirical research (…) but unless we try to get to the bottom of this, we are left with unsubstantiated assertions about the EU’s place/role/influence in the world. (…) Debates about whether the EU is or is not a civilian power, a normative power, a superpower and so on, are not really leading us anywhere right now. (…) We should instead engage in a debate about what the EU does and why it does it and with what effect, rather than what it is.

In striving to address this interest, the present study focuses on an emblematic concern of EU (foreign) policy, a key domain in which the EU has – following the principle of precaution – the long-standing intention to influence its environment and other actors: global climate politics (Van Schaik/Schunz 2012). Its foreign policy activities and the global politics in this area cannot be understood without a basic understanding of the issue of climate change itself.

When it comes to this issue, the Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007, provided a comprehensive summary of the state of the art of scientific knowledge.3 It is expected that many trends that the FAR documented will be confirmed in the fifth Assessment Report in 2014.4 The 2007 Report gathered much evidence for the existence of climate change. The most striking observations were (IPCC 2007a: 2–4):

A rise in average global air temperature by around 0.75°C and an increase in the heat content of the world’s oceans during the century from 1906 to 2005.

← 21 | 22 →A widespread melting of ice both in the Arctic sea and on mountain glaciers all over the planet, and of snow in mountainous areas in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

A rise in sea levels by an average of 1.8 mm per year since 1961 and by 3.1 mm per year since 1993.


ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (April)
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 371 pp., 8 tables

Biographical notes

Simon Schunz (Author)

Simon Schunz holds a PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), where he worked as a junior and senior researcher and continues to lecture. He also holds degrees from the College of Europe and the Free University of Berlin.


Title: European Union Foreign Policy and the Global Climate Regime