What we do

The EU maintains diplomatic relations with nearly all countries in the world. It has strategic partnerships with key international players, is deeply engaged with emerging powers around the globe, and has signed bilateral Association Agreements with a number of states in its vicinity. Abroad, the Union is represented by a number of EU Delegations, which have a similar function to those of an embassy.

The European Union in the world

The European Union plays an important role in international affairs through diplomacy, trade, development aid and working with global organisations.

The Lisbon Treaty (2009) led to major developments in the area of external action, with the creation of the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the establishment of the EU's diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The High Representative – a post currently held by Catherine Ashton – exercises, in foreign affairs, the functions previously held by the six-monthly rotating Presidency, the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and the European Commissioner for External Relations.

According to her mandate, the High Representative:    

  • conducts the Union's common foreign and security policy;
  • contributes by her proposals to the development of that policy, which she carries out as mandated by the Council, and ensures implementation of the decisions adopted;
  • presides over the Foreign Affairs Council of Ministers;
  • is one of the Vice-Presidents of the Commission and thus ensures the consistency of the Union's external action.
  • represents the Union for matters relating to the common foreign and security policy, conducts political dialogue with third parties on the Union's behalf and expresses the Union's position in international fora.
  • exercises authority over the European External Action Service and over EU delegations in third countries and at international organisations.


The EEAS assists the High Representative in ensuring the consistency and coordination of the Union's external action as well as by preparing policy proposals and implementing them after their approval by the Council. It also assists the President of the European Council and the President as well as the Members of the Commission in their respective functions in the area of external relations and ensures close cooperation with the Member States. The network of EU delegations around the world is part of the EEAS structure.

Here are just some examples of the role the European Union plays around the world: 

  • Peace building: Through political, practical and economic support the EU has played a crucial role in peace building in the Western Balkans after the Yugoslav wars. From Bosnia-Herzegovina to Montenegro, the EU has used its power to promote peace and reconciliation. The latest example of this is the dialogue being facilitated by the European Union between Serbia and Kosovo – the "Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue".

  • A responsible neighbour: To the east and south of the European Union lie many countries which have in recent years undergone tumultuous political change. The Arab Awakening is just the latest example of this which is why the European Neighbourhood Policy aims to maintain solid and friendly relations with countries that are at the European Union's borders. Promoting democracy, human rights and opening trade and cooperation on visa issues are just some examples of this.

  • Development Aid: Did you know that the EU is the largest single donor of development aid? In 2010, the combined total of donations from the EU and member states was €53.8 billion which is making a huge difference to millions of people's livelihoods around the world.

  • The EU is member of the Quartet, alongside the United Nations, the United States and Russia, which is working for peace in the Middle East. Resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a strategic priority for Europe. The EU’s objective is a two-state solution with an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel in peace and security.

  • 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 external relations: in the political dialogues it holds with third countries; through its development policy and assistance; or through its action in multilateral fora, such as the United Nations.

  • The Union 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, and is explicitly spelled out in the Treaty of Lisbon.

  • Building security around the world: Under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU operates civilian and military missions worldwide. These missions carry out a variety of tasks from border management to local police training. For example the Operation EUNAVFOR Atalanta off the coast of Somalia tackles piracy and protects humanitarian shipments of the World Food Programme bound for drought hit areas.

  • Crisis Response & Humanitarian Aid: Almost half of all international humanitarian relief comes from the European Union and its members. This provides life saving aid in places like the Horn of Africa where famine stalks whole populations. In addition the European Union stands ready to respond in a coordinated way to any international emergency - be it the earthquake in Haiti, tsunami in Japan or flooding in Pakistan. This brings together all the tools the European Union has at its disposal.

  • The Union was instrumental in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and, with a domestic low-carbon agenda that is probably the most advanced and sophisticated in the world remains a crucial player on this issue, indispensable for pushing an ambitious agenda of change. The Union is focusing on building a coalition for a legally binding agreement on climate change.

  • Trade: The European Union is the world’s largest trading bloc. Trade is a common policy so the EU speaks with a single voice in trade negotiations with international partners in promoting a free and fairer international trading system.

  • An enlarging European Union - from 6 to 28: From six countries in 1957 to 28 now, the EU has expanded through the decades – notably 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 on democracy and the rule of law to name two.
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