Smaller States’ Strategies and Influence in an EU of 27: Lessons for Scotland

Primary Author or Creator:
Kirsty Hughes
Scottish Centre on European Relations
Alternative Published Date
March 2020
Type of Resource:
Policy Paper
Length (Pages, words, minutes etc...)
Fast Facts

Smaller EU member states can develop their European strategies and tactics, set priorities and build alliances, and  some lessons for Scotland’s European strategy are available from their experiences.

More details

Any list of what smaller states can do to achieve more influence risks being simplistic. But there are recurring themes both from earlier studies, and from the interviews in this report, that point in the same direction. Implementing such strategies and tactics is where the depth, detail, and success or failure of member states’ strategies lie.

Ten key points, arising from this report, that smaller member states do adopt and/or should consider adopting in their EU strategies are as follows:

  • Build alliances, coalitions, and relationships – be flexible and open to others’ interests, and interact with both larger and smaller member states and the EU institutions.
  • Recognise EU politics is not a zero-sum or one-off game. Develop strategies, tactics and alliances accordingly.
  • Alliances with neighbours are often important and can be long-standing. But depending only on neighbours is not sufficient – reaching out across the EU brings benefits.
  • Put forward constructive, well-substantiated ideas, compromises and solutions rather than bringing problems or simply being obstructive.
  • Be pro-active and participate; look to join in and/or initiate statements, letters, non-papers, public papers and so forth; contribute to big EU strategic debates not just specific policy areas.
  • Be consistent and persistent. Politics and policy positions evolve over time. Be alert for opportunities to insert priorities into documents, discussions and evolving EU policy debates.
  • Ensure other member states are aware of your long-term top priorities as a country over time; and be aware of theirs.
  • Intervene as early as possible, with information and ideas (ideally not only on your own member state concerns) where a policy issue is under development.
  • Invest in resources and skills, including negotiating skills – with your priorities guiding where they can best be located; Brussels and the permanent representation are key but bilateral embassies matter too. Also aim to put talented officials into the EU institutions – and follow their career paths, influencing where possible.
  • Put time and resources into ensuring that domestic and EU politics and policy join up successfully – both in the parliamentary and public domains.

Overall, smaller and medium-sized EU member states adopt a variety of strategies and tactics as they participate in an EU of 27. Many are deliberately very pro-active, aim to get in early, show their commitment to the wider interests of the EU over time, and build both longer-standing and more temporary alliances. The UK’s departure has had considerable impact on how different member states view coalitions and alliances, or like-minded states, in the EU – it’s an impact that is still unfolding and provoking considerable diplomatic and political reflection.

Smaller states understand that they have to work with bigger member states and not just with each other. Core EU strategies, notably the European Green Deal and related efforts to re-invent industrial strategy will not work without the backing of, and leadership from, France and Germany. But, as we have shown, smaller states can be influential in such major strategic policy areas and can play leadership roles over time, not least in the process of shifting policy and strategic attention to an area like climate change over time, and in terms of the crucial building blocks that then go into such strategies.


The EU’s political dynamics and the ability to move forward depend both on strategic thinking and on consensus-building and a recognition of the importance of solidarity and compromise. That is not to deny hard-headed national interests and power politics are at play in today’s EU. But the EU’s unique and complex structures do not work in the face of long-standing, rigid and inflexible approaches from individual member states or groups of member states. Alliances of member states can and do help move the EU forward – but they can also at times act as a block. Many member states are also re-thinking their EU alliances and networking in the face of the UK’s departure: this has shaken up the EU’s political dynamics and this is still playing out.

Overall, many smaller member states see it as in their own interests to be pro-active, constructive and compromising. They recognise the need to build reciprocal relationships with other member states (both large and small), as well as to work hard at finding areas – and alliances – of common interest to ensure their voices get heard and that they have influence.

There is much in smaller EU member states’ strategies that Scotland can learn from, even as a small country outside the EU with the rest of the UK. How Scotland focuses and uses its limited resources and develops its own European strategy, within the context of its devolved powers and the Scottish government’s independence ambitions, is a core question.

Building networks, being part of policy debates, and having some influence is a serious challenge from outside the EU. But focusing resources, setting priorities, building relationships with other countries and with EU institutions, being timely, pro-active, constructive and creative are all tactics used by smaller EU states that Scotland can (and in many ways already does) deploy too. And if Scotland does move towards independence and to re-joining the EU, it can learn much, both for its accession process and eventually as a new EU member state, from how smaller EU states today go about their influencing strategies.