EU Foreign Policy is Focused on “Milieu Shaping,” Argues Thaler, SPP’s First Public Policy Track PhD Graduate

December 15, 2015

On December 4, SPP celebrated the successful defense of Philipp Thaler, who is the first PhD student within the public policy track at CEU's Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations to graduate since SPP became part of the Doctoral School earlier this summer. SPP faculty contributes to teaching and student supervision within the Doctoral School. "Undertaking a PhD at CEU has been an overwhelming experience," Thaler commented. "These past five years have helped me rethink some of my world views. I've fundamentally changed."

Thaler's dissertation analyzes the lack of coherence in the body of European Union (EU) foreign policy towards Russia. "In some areas, such as international climate negotiations, the EU is a very strong actor," Thaler said. "But in other areas, it isn't. Why is that?"

To answer this question, Thaler used a dual analytical approach that distinguishes between the "policy setting" and the "policy content" in order to examine policy decisions in the fields of energy and human rights. The policy setting highlights bureaucratic structures, rules, and procedures to explain policy outcomes. A focus on institutions can inform reforms aimed at making policy decisions more coherent across all 28 member states. In contrast, the policy content emphasizes the substance and objectives of policies. In his thesis, Thaler looked at cases of energy and human rights policies towards Russia to analyze the policy content.

Based on his research, Thaler argues that the EU is a "milieu shaper" towards Russia because it seeks to export norms and values through its foreign policy objectives. To achieve this end, the EU leverages international mechanisms such as energy or human rights dialogues and treaties. Thaler found that the EU faces challenges with these "milieu shaping" goals because it has become increasingly difficult to operationalize the exportation of norms and values. "For example," Thaler explained, "consider Russia's stance on LGBT rights. The country has become increasingly unresponsive to external pressures."

By analyzing a series of case studies, Thaler concludes that improving the sequencing of policy goals can improve the external coherence of EU foreign policy. "EU foreign policy will likely be more coherent when milieu goals, such as normative stances on energy, promote possession goals, like gas contracts," Thaler recommended.

"Thaler's thesis research on the European Union's policy towards Russia comes at a very important time as Russia is currently one of the most important items on the Union's foreign policy agenda," noted SPP Professor Uwe Puetter, Thaler's dissertation supervisor. "This thesis is an extremely rich account of EU-Russia relations during the last 20 years and proposes an original analytical framework from which Philipp derives specific policy recommendation for how the EU should structure the formation of its foreign policy towards its eastern neighbor."

You can read Thaler's dissertation, "Unpacking 'Coherence' in EU Foreign Policy: How Policy Setting and Policy Content Shape EU External Relations Towards Russia," here.