Europe?s future foreign policy at risk

Before Catherine Ashton can become an effective actor on the global stage, the European Union’s new foreign policy chief needs to have in place the diplomatic service, ordained by the Lisbon treaty

The job of the European External ActionService is to “assist” Lady Ashton in her multitude of tasks as high representative for foreign and security policy, vice-president of the European Commission and chair of the Council of foreign ministers. Drawing officials from the Commission, the Council secretariat and national foreign ministries, the EAS isnot a new EU institution or agency but a service at the command of bothCommission and Council, with Lady Ashton, who belongs to both institutions, in charge.

Inevitably, perhaps, tensions have arisen between the Commission and Council as to which of them should have the lion’s share of the EAS. The squabble now threatens to get out of control, putting at risk the EU’s future foreign policy. The deadline originally set for the establishment of the service – the end of April – is unlikely to be met. Countries outside Europe must already be wondering what the EU is playing at after so many years of constitutional wrangling.

It would be best to implement the Lisbon treaty scrupulously and in full. Unhappily, some are tempted to adorn the treaty blueprint with extra provisions while others are being selective inchoosing which of its clauses they prefer.

President José Manuel Barroso, for example, isintent on defending the prerogatives that the Commission has acquired over the years in managing the EU’s external relations in fields other than foreign and security policy.

The member states, in particular France and the UK, want to resist Commission incursion via the EAS into areas they consider precious to national sovereignty. Both sides downplay the treaty’s injunction that each institution must respect the distinct functions of theother.

The row over the EAS exacerbates other tensions flowing from the Lisbon treaty. Mr Barroso’s toes are being trod upon by Herman Van Rompuy who, defying expectation, is proving to be a quietly determined full-time president of the European Council.

Mr Van Rompuy has decided not to limit himselfto his main function, which is representing the EU at summit level in the field of foreign and security policy, but also to take up issues of economic governance that are traditionally the Commission’s domain.

Meanwhile, foreign ministers are having to come to terms with a reduced role in EU affairs, in effect no longer “chefs dela diplomatie”, presided over in the Council by Lady Ashton and excluded from meetings of the European Council. It will be disastrous if the EAS is taken hostage in these turf wars.

The EAS will enable the EU to do things together that were previously, because of a lack of cohesion, done separately or, because of a lack of means, not done at all. To justify its existence, the EAS needs a wide scope. France and the UK have agreed that the security and military apparatus now in the Council will join the new service. This is a major concession that now deserves from the Commission a reciprocal gesture interms of pooling overseas development policy.

Indeed, the EAS process is a golden opportunity to reform and strengthen the EU’s development policy, making it more responsive to the needs of third countries, less incoherent and more costefficient. There is no need for the Commission to pine after the old ways of doing things. It is high time to disconnect EU development policy from post-colonial attitudes, to integrate it better with foreign and security policy imperatives, and to prepare to bring development finance under the EU federal budget in 2014.

A good decision, which still needs consolidating, is to gather all geographical desks in the EAS. Yet if development policy is kept outside the EAS, so will be African policy, making a nonsense of the effort to streamline policy making and avoid duplication. And although the programming side of external policies will be within the EAS there will still be commissioners for development policy (Andris Piebalgs), humanitarian aid (Kristalina Georgieva) and neighbourhood policy (Stefan Fule), who will form a powerful cluster around Lady Ashton, and will often deputise for her.

Draft organigrammes of the EAS are circulating around Brussels like confetti. The treaty is silent on whether Lady Ashtonneeds official deputies. Events suggest she does. These three or four deputies will act for the high representative where a junior ministerial presence isrequired. This includes speaking to the European and national parliaments. In short, these deputies need to be as “double-hatted” as Lady Ashton is herself, high officials who are also political “special representatives”, according to the treaty, nominated by the high representative and appointed by the Council.

The European parliament is playing an active part in these negotiations, as it is wont to do when Council and Commission are divided. MEPs have to give their opinion on the setting up of the EAS and also have to agree any revision of the financial and staff regulations needed to get the Service up and running. Parliament, therefore, has effective powers of co-decision over the whole apparatus. Its aim, of course, is to build in as much democratic and budgetary accountability as possible. For this reason, and for efficient administration, the EAS must be linked organically to the relevant services of the Commission. Lady Ashton will have to get her annual draft budget through the parliament.

Recruitment to the EAS will be managed according to regular EU procedures. The Commission’s overseas delegations – now 136 of them – will become part of the EAS, reporting in the first instance toLady Ashton, who will also be responsible for senior appointments. For this purpose, she needs to be fuelled with nominations of credible candidates by aselection board representative of the Commission and Council. Mr Barroso’srecent controversial appointment of his former chef de cabinet, João Vale de Almeida, to the EU’s Washington mission will never be allowed to happen in quite that way again.

Mr Barroso is too clever to succumb to piqueat the loss of direct authority. He knows that it will be self-defeating to hobble the EAS at birth. Unless she has the means, Ms Ashton will be unable tofulfil the vital task of improving co-ordination of external policies both within the college of commissioners and between the Commission and Council. She needs to be well-informed. For this the EAS has to be large, capable of liaising professionally with the Commission in all manner of international affairs such as energy security, climate change, immigration and crime busting. The Commission, although it will lose its classical external relations and development policy people to the EAS, will retain trade and enlargement infull.

The Lisbon treaty does not eviscerate the power of the Commission. Lady Ashton is not a Council cuckoo in the Commission nest. It is good for Europe that the Commission vice-president takes over the Council of foreign ministers and that she, supported by her Commission colleagues, has the power to propose common foreign and security policies tothat Council which, in many cases, may act by qualified majority vote. Overtime the new system will foster a common culture of diplomacy and more federal policies with which the world can engage and our own citizens identify.

Andrew Duff MEP is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations

This piece was first published in The Financial Times.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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