Explaining and Understanding EU Foreign Policy: the case of Navalny’s poisoning

Matti Spåra is a second year international relations student at King’s College London. He is the IR Theory editor for IR Today. Matti is also a research assistant in the Department of European and International Studies and Co President of the War Studies society.


The purpose of this essay is to understand the European Union (EU) as a foreign policy actor. It contends that mainstream Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) approaches fail to achieve this because they overlook the informal practices taking place in EU foreign policy decision-making. In order to understand the EU as a foreign policy actor, FPA needs theoretical tools that can render informal practices visible. Consequently, the essay argues that practice theory can bring this to bear. What makes EU foreign policy practices informal is “their ‘non-codified settings of day-to-day interaction concerning policy issues, in which the participation of actors… decision-making and implementation are not structured by pre-given sets of rules or formal institutions’”(Delreux and Keukeleire, 2017, p. 1473). Indeed, informality has recently risen to the research agenda of EU foreign policy (Kleine 2013; Delreux and Keukeleire, 2017). Kleine (2013, xi) advances: “informality might be the rule rather than the exception in (EU) politics. Behind the scenes and alongside official procedures seems to be where many important decisions are being made.” Informality is thus a core feature of EU foreign policy and a crucial element in understanding the EU as a foreign policy actor. This essay defines EU foreign policy as “the entirety of activities developed by the EU and directed towards the external environment” comprising the Common Foreign and Security policy (CFDP), EU level actors and also the member states (Delreux & Keukeleire, 2017, p. 1473).

By utilising the concepts of explainingand understandingby Hollis & Smith (1990) the essay will first demonstrate how FPA, understood as primarily American mainstream paradigms of international relations (IR) and foreign policy, is unable to understandthe EU as a foreign policy actor due to the informal character of EU foreign policy decision-making. Secondly, it introduces practice theory. By applying practices to EU’s foreign policy decision-making in the context of Alexei Navalny’s poisoning in late August 2020, the third section demonstrates how practices are useful in capturing informality and understanding the EU as a foreign policy actor. The essay concludes with a summary of the arguments put forward.


After introducing the concepts of explaining and understanding (Hollis and Smith 1990), this section provides a criticism toward the Bureaucratic Politics Model (BPM) (Allison & Zelikow, 1999), one of the leading paradigms in FPA,  by pointing to its inability to understand the EU as a foreign policy actor. The final paragraph will also briefly criticise the existing literature on informal governance.

Hollis and Smith (1990)provide a dyad of explainingand understandingfor assessing the philosophy of science behind IR and foreign policy theories. By “explaining”, Hollis and Smith refer to an external point of view or a mind-world dualism between the object of study and the analyst (Jackson, 2016). Similar to how a natural scientist explains the spread of cancer in the body and makes generalisations of the subject matter, an explanation-oriented social scientist approaches foreign policy from the premise that objective knowledge claims can be made by searching for causes which enables to make law-like generalisations of social phenomena. “Understanding,” by contrast, refers to the “internal” point of view or mind-world monism between the object of study and the analyst (Hollis & Smith, 1990; Jackson, 2016). Put simply, understanding can be assumed as an effort to capture the meaning behind foreign policy events, whereas explaining can be assumed as an effort to establish law-like generalisations of foreign policy (Dunleavy, 2019, p. 4).

BPM is explanatory in Hollis’ and Smith’s (1990)terms. The key claim of this section is that in BPM’s focus on the study of rational actors in formal institutional structures, BPM analysts are trapped in a methodological prison that makes them unable to study informal processes adequately and thus understand EU as a foreign policy actor. BPM’s underlying assumptions about bureaucratic power-struggles and rationalism render it useless in the study of a complex social environments as the EU (Delreux, 2015; Weldes, 1998).

For example, relying on BPM in the context of European Security Cooperation and the crisis management roles of  the Council’s “Joint Situation Centre” and the Commission’s Civil Protection Unit, Rhinard and Boin lament: “the division of labor between these two centers is not always easy to distinguish” (Rhinard & Boin, 2009, p. 7). For Rhinard and Boin, BPM reduces the study of EU foreign policy into the study of bureaucratic power-struggles within intra-institutional, inter-institutional and member state/EU institution contexts (Rhinard and Boin, 2009, p. 12). In other words, a BPM analyst must always find formal arrangements and define actors as affiliated with a bureaucratic entity that are either clashing or collaborating over a policy issue. Furthermore, the policy output is always a result of the clashes between bureaucratic entities. EU institutions are anthropomorphised and individuals within them are rendered into actors with a fixed set of interests determined by “sitting where you stand” (Weldes, 1998). 

Moreover, BPM needs formal institutional settings in order to stay relevant. When BPM is supposedly able to conceptualise informal processes, it sees them as merely new bureaucratic battlegrounds or turf wars, in which rational actors, who pledge allegiance to their respective bureaucracies, seek to gain more influence at the expense of other bureaucracies (Delreux, 2015). In other words, when BPM is able to see informality, it is in the context where new legislation is implemented and the marching order between bureaucracies is not settled. According to the logic of BPM, new legislation potentially leaves “informal gaps” into an “expansive formal structure”, and bureaucratic actors are trying to formalise this informal gap so that their bureaucracy will have more power in the emerging policy realm (Delreux, 2015, p. 153). This notion renders BPM incapable of understanding the EU as a foreign policy actor because informal processes are importantly utilised in the formulation of foreign policy and some decision-making processes are deliberatelyleft informal (Delreux and Keukeleire, 2017).

Finally, the broader existing literature concerning the EU’s informal governance suffers from similar shortcomings as BPM. Pouliot argues that the literature on informal governance “tends to reify the very distinction between formal and informal” and that they subscribe to functionalism in that “actors adopt Pareto-improving alternatives to formal rules” (Pouliot, 2016, pp. 42-43). For example, in her book Informal Governance in the European Union (2013),Kleine contends that informality “allows the member states to manipulate one another’s politics of collective action in such a way that domestic interests remain persistently aligned in favor of integration.” Simply put, the literature tends to subscribe to the assumptions that create an unnecessary dichotomy between the informal and formal and it streamlines social actors to rationalist utility-maximising “robots” that seek to maintain either bureaucratic or national interests (Pouliot, 2016). 

Therefore, informality is a major problem for mind-world dualist paradigms of foreign policy. Predominantly, these approaches can only analyse foreign policy in formal institutional contexts. Moreover, if they see informality, it is a means for rational actors to pursue their pregiven interests in institutional environments more efficiently or a means to make multilateralism more efficient. Even if FPA is able explaininformal practices and EU foreign policy, it is unable to understandthem. The next section will seek to overcome these shortcomings of mainstream FPA through practice theory.


How can the informal dimension of EU foreign policy be understood? After pointing out the flaws of the mainstream FPA approaches in understanding informality and the EU as a foreign policy actor it is time to offer a remedy. Enriching mainstream FPA to understand the EU as a foreign policy actor requires “a turn to practice”. The so-called practice turn in IR refers to a broad church (Adler & Pouliot, 2011a; Adler-Nissen, 2016; Bicchi & Bremberg, 2016; Brown, 2012; Kustermans, 2016; Lechner & Frost, 2018; Neumann, 2002; Ringmar, 2014; Solomon & Steele, 2017), and while there is no scholarly consensus on what the term practicemeans, one can carefully define practices as “socially meaningful patterns of action” (Bremberg, Sonnsjö, & Mobjörk, 2019, p. 625). This section introduces practice theory and argues that it is well equipped to understandthe EU as a foreign policy actor as it can successfully analyse informality and the meaning behind action.

Practice theory offers a remedy by conceptualising the EU as an international social order understood as a configuration of practices – socially meaningful patterns of action – that organise social life (Adler, 2019, pp. 6-7). This conceptualisation is significantly stronger than mainstream FPA’s relegation of the EU as a battleground for anthropomorphised bureaucracies and utility-maximising individuals (Delreux, 2015; Weldes, 1998). Moreover, to build on the careful definition introduced above, practices can be understood as “socially meaningful patterns of action, which in being performed more or less competently, simultaneously embody, act out, and possibly reify background knowledge and discourse in and on the material world” (Adler & Pouliot, 2011b, p. 4). With these concepts in mind – practice and social order (configuration of practices), one can understand EU foreign policyas a practice within the social order of the EU. To move further down, one can conceptualise for example EU-Russia relationsas a practice within the practice of EU foreign policy, which is also constituted by configurations of practices such as summits and diplomatic dialogues (Adler, 2019). Crucially, “socially meaningful patterns of action” do not have to be formal and codified into EU law or international treaties. A practice theory analyst can understand the EU as a foreign policy actor by looking at both informal andformal practices in EU foreign policy-making (Adler-Nissen, 2016; Pouliot, 2016).

This understanding of EU foreign policy as a configuration of practices allows the analyst to escape from mainstream FPA’s ontological commitments to the idea that the EU is merely a battleground between and within institutions, bureaucracies and member-states. Having introduced the crux of practices, the following section will look at EU foreign policy-making in the context of Alexei Navalny’s poisoning in late August 2020.


At this point it should be clear that practices, defined as socially meaningful patterns of action, can, in theory, overcome mainstream FPA’s inability to understand the EU as a foreign policy actor. The stage is set to study “the informal division of labour” in EU’s foreign policymaking empirically via practice theory (Delreux & Keukeleire, 2017). By applying practices to EU’s foreign policy decision-making in the context of Alexei Navalny’s poisoning in late August 2020, this section demonstrates how practices are useful in capturing informality and understanding the EU as a foreign policy actor. In the following, the essay looks at informal decision-making practices by interpreting Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö’s comments regarding the management of the crisis. However, Niinistö’s role cannot be exaggerated. His role in the crisis should be understood as an illustrative example of informal practices in EU foreign policy, which enrichens the understanding of the EU as a foreign policy actor. The following discussion was conducted by discourse analysis that seeks to elucidate the informal practices evident in EU’s foreign policy by interpreting the meaning behind discourse and action, which provides a novel understanding of the EU as a foreign policy actor (see Adler-Nissen, 2016, pp. 96-98). The texts under examination are collected from impartial journalist sources and from open-access records from the Office of the President of the Republic of Finland and from the European External Action Service (EEAS). 

On August 20th, 2020, news spread that Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was in critical condition after being poisoned during a flight over Siberia. On August 21st, 2020, Sauli Niinistö, the Finnish President, had a “detailed discussion” on the poisoning of Navalny with the German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel (President of the Republic of Finland, 2020a). In this discussion, Merkel expressed her support for Niinistö’s initiative of transferring Navalny to Germany (YLE, 2020). On the same day, President Niinistö had a long telephone conversation with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in which the question of organising Alexei Navalny’s health care was addressed (President of the Republic of Finland, 2020b). In a press conference on the following day, Niinistö elaborated on his conversation with Putin: “I asked whether he [Navalny] couldn’t be moved to Germany” (YLE, 2020). According to Niinistö, Putin had replied that there was no political obstacle for the transfer (YLE, 2020). Interestingly, the head of EEAS, the High Representative Josepp Borrell’s role in the crisis was limited to formal statements with a potentially non-existent crisis management role (EEAS, 2020). Similarly, Ursula von der Leyen’s role was limited. Indeed, it was Niinistö who took leadership of the crisis response by brokering the transfer of Navalny from Russia to Germany. Consequently, Navalny was transferred to Germany to receive health care and rehabilitation before he returned to Russia in early 2021. Overall, it was a foreign policy success for the key actors, Germany and Finland, and for the EU as a whole. The EU was able to remain united in the face of a crisis in its neighbourhood, and by saving the life of a Russian dissident, it was able to reify its identity as a liberal democratic body. The EU’s crisis response to Navalny’s poisoning was a result of informal practices as the participation of actors, decision-making and implementation were not structured by pre-given rules or formal institutions (Delreux and Keukeleire, 2017, p. 1473).

Whereas BPM would focus on analysing the clashes in formal settings between EU institutions and EU members in solving the crisis and to explain the outcome, practice theory is able to understand the meaning underlying the actions of actors. It is clear that Finland had meaningful agency in the crisis. Thus, within the practice of EU foreign policy, there is the practice of EU-Russia relations, which includes the “meaningful pattern of action” of Finland acting as a mediator between the East and the West,or more specifically, Niinistö acting as “a trusted messenger” (Vanttinen, 2021). Moreover, all actors contributed to the construction and reification of the informal practice that Finland acts as a mediator between the East and the West in EU foreign policy. Finland’s role as a mediator is part of an established narrative of Cold War history (Browning, 2006), and it has become part of the background knowledge that all actors – Russia, Finland and EU member states – have. This informal practice seems to have become a robust one, perhaps even an informal standard operating procedure (Delreux and Keukeleire, 2017, p. 1482). Indeed, as the events of the Spring of 2021 have unfolded with Navalny incarcerated, Finland continues to play a big role in EU-Russia relations with perhaps more competence than formal institutional actors such as the High Representative Josepp Borrell (Barigazzi, 2021; YLE, 2021). However, it is unlikely that Finland’s role in EU’s foreign policy with Russia will ever be made formal. Yet, it still constitutes EU foreign policy understood as “the entirety of activities developed by the EU and directed towards the external environment” comprising of EU level actors and also the member states (Delreux & Keukeleire, 2017, p. 1473). 

In the context of understanding the EU as a foreign policy actor and the informal decision-making processes that EU foreign policy entails, the role of Niinistö was clearly a result of informal practices – practices that mainstream FPA would not be able to understand. BPM could explain this event as a game between anthropomorphised and rationalist actors clashing over resolving a crisis, and realists could explain Finland’s role merely as an instrument of Germany’s leadership. Institutionalists would explain the informal procedure as an efficient means to overcome institutional constraints to the Pareto-optimum (Pouliot, 2016). However, all of the above fall short in their philosophical commitments to trying to explain the outcome of the crisis, not understand the meaning behind the decision-making process of the crisis. Understanding the EU as a foreign policy actor requires a turn to practice which sheds light on the informal practices that occur behind formal arrangements.


This essay has argued that mainstream FPA cannot analyse informality in EU’s decision-making and thus it fails to understand the EU as a foreign policy actor. By utilising Hollis’ and Smith’s (1990) explaining and understanding, it has argued that Bureaucratic Politics is inherently trapped in explanatory analysis and restricted in formal institutional structures. Given these constraints and the fact that EU foreign policy is increasingly informal (Delreux and Keukeleire, 2017), the case has been made that BPM is not useful in understanding the EU as a foreign policy actor. Subsequently, the essay has made the case that practice theory is able to understand the EU as a foreign policy actor because it can conceptually escape formal decision-making by reconceptualising the EU as a configuration of practices (Adler, 2019). The usefulness of practice theory was illustrated in the case of EU’s response to the poisoning of Alexei Navalny by analysing the meaning behind the crisis management process.

A mind-world dualist FPA scholar might want to throw this essay with Occam’s razor: “why,” they ask, “why, complicate things with practices if the end result of the analysis is the same as with established theoretical approaches?” (Pouliot, 2016, pp. 15-16). They have a fair point, but ultimately, they are missing the real point which is that mainstream FPA can merely explain EU foreign policy, but it cannot understand it (Hollis & Smith, 1990). As Pouliot argues in International Pecking Orders: “my wager is that social scientists are (and should be) interested not only in how something varies but also in how it comes about and sustains itself over time” (Pouliot, 2016, 16). That is to say that positivist knowledge claims are valid but not at the expense of post-positivist understanding (see Jackson, 2016). Indeed, both philosophies of science can make valid knowledge claims but as this essay brought informality– a social phenomenon that one cannot study convincingly from the external point of view – at the centre of EU foreign policy, the explanatory mainstream FPA is not very useful as EU foreign policy-making becomes something it cannot analyse. Practice theory allows the analyst to take off the “blinders” created by mainstream FPA fixated on formal institutions. As the case study of EU’s response to the poisoning of Navalny has illustrated, the EU is a diverse foreign policy actor with multiple informal practices in its foreign policy repertoire. Its member states are able to impose sanctions in concert to a third country formally, but it can also informally utilise small states in crisis situations and thus benefit not only the EU itself but also the member states that constitute it. Indeed, practices add greater nuance to the study of EU foreign policy. This is how the EU should be understood as a foreign policy actor – in practice.


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