Acting as one: Europe’s diplomatic service

With the Lisbon Treaty still to be ratified, discussions of the EEAS are limited and proposals modest. But the EEAS could bring a revolutionary improvement in the EU’s ability to act abroad – if bold thinking is allowed.

The Lisbon Treaty is meant to herald the emergence of a new world actor – a Europe that can look upwards and outwards and is equipped with the bureaucratic tools to do so. A British diplomat called the EEAS “the natural administrative expression of the European Union’s desire to give greater force and coherence to its external policies.”

Gone should be the days of institutional squabbling. Banished should be the incomprehensible syllable-soup of committees and overlapping organisations. In future, the European Union should be better placed to speak – and more importantly act – with unity and purpose.

Sad, therefore, that debates about the EU’s new foreign policy bureaucracy have turned into a turf-protecting, entitlement-securing battle between the Commission and the Council, as both seek to maintain their institutional responsibilities and staff prerogatives. Fearful that any mention of the subject may scupper ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, most countries, large and small , have kept out of the debate,.

Sadder still, while the United States has begun re-thinking the nature of its government – Congress is now funding a major study and a new President likely to institute reform in the State Department, Pentagon, CIA and the NSC -, little of this is reflected in the Brussels debate.

The Lisbon Treaty itself cannot be prayed in aid to steer debates as its references to the diplomatic corps – the European External Action Service (EEAS) – are limited. It states that the EEAS “shall comprise officials from relevant departments of the General Secretariat of the Council and of the Commission, as well as staff seconded from national diplomatic services of the Member States”. Their job will be to “assist”” the High Representative. It also places the EC delegations – in effect the EU’s embassies – under the High Representative.

In March 2005, High Representative Solana and Commission President Barroso agreed a joint “issues paper”, which was followed up two months later by a joint “progress report” presented to the European Council. Following the French and Dutch “no” votes in referendums on the Constitutional Treaty, this work was suspended. With the Lisbon Treaty agreed, some work has begun behind the scenes. But as treaty is still not ratified, most EU officials have taken a Trappist vow of silence on the EEAS.

Think tanks to the rescue

Much work is needed to put flesh on the bones of the EEAS and to do so in a way that takes into account new thinking. In this, think-tankers are coming to the EU’s aid. The EPC, and SWP have published studies on the subject; the CER expects to do so shortly while a group of former high-ranking officials – the Experts Group – are working on a report. The UK Parliament also issued a report recently.

The main issues are under examination are the role of the High Representative; the nature of the EU’s embassies, the size and shape of the headquarters, how to manage the policy process i.e. the many committees that function like the EU’s foreign policy arteries, and how to ensure that the EEAS is staffed by top-flight diplomats who are taught necessary languages, and rotated into key posts.

Other issues include how many EEAS staff which is to be made up by seconded national personnel, whether the EEAS will support the President of the European Council, as well as the High Representative; the legal status of the EEAS-as a new EU institution, or as an agency; how the EEAS is to be funded; and the legal status of EEAS staff seconded from national diplomatic services.

A question runs through all the debates: what should the relationship between the EEAS and the EU-27 ministries be – both in Brussels and in the field. Without a simple “render-unto-Cesar” formula, this is not easy to determine. Different countries have different views, based on their varying interests and their capabilities. Large countries with a world-girdling network of embassies – like Britain, France and Germany – have different needs than small countries who cannot sustain large diplomatic corps.

To answer the question, it may be useful to look at where the EU can add value. In other words, what can an EEAS do that the EU-27 – with their separate ministries and legations – cannot do, but need to have done? Three issues stand out. First, the EU has a hard time delivering the common policies it adopts in Brussels? What role could the EEAS play at the sharp end of policy delivery? Second, EU-27 ministries face problems in developing regional approaches. Third, theEU-27 struggle to deal with cross-cutting issues i.e. those that require more than a single-agency response.

Delivering common policies

To provide an effective, coherent service to deliver an EU foreign policy, real coordination is required at the delivery end in foreign capitals, major cities (consulates) and at multilateral organisations. EEAS, argues my colleague John Fox, should be the backbone around which this coordination happens. “EEAS would replace the (weak) commission RELEX and Presidency roles, and be supported by significant diplomatic resources on the ground (i.e. EEAS staff). These would carry out the majority of core EU business supported locally by member states missions.”

This would allow member states to reduce their diplomatic presence in areas where EEAS could take over (and correspondingly support the EEAS through seconding these staff into it). To succeed it would need resources and the confidence of member states. Member states would need to feel better informed and involved in EEAS activity than they currently do in local commission/Presidency activity. As an initial step, John Fox suggests, it may be necessary to look at local member states officials acting under an EEAS umbrella (sort of temporary or part secondments).

Regional Structures

Examining what traditional ministries find most difficult, one issue stands out: the inability to take a regional approach. Countries have embassies. Embassies have ambassadors. Their job is to focus on the country or countries they have been accredited to. Back in the capital sits the only person with a regional remit – for example the Foreign Office’s Asia Director.

But these people rarely have the time to take a series of country-specific plans and integrate these. More often than not, regional plans are a series of country-specific plans. Yet such an outlook is problematic. Terrorism, natural disasters, and other challenges-among them WMD threats, non-proliferation, space, information, and communications – have no borders. They require a regional response.

This situation is similar to the one faced by the U.S. military until just after World War II. Before then, each service’s regional structure reflected its parochial view of the world. Recognizing that the adverse impact on inter-service coordination outweighed the benefits to the services for their individual regional structures, the newly formed Joint Chiefs of Staff required all the services to adopt a single structure. Since 1946, a “unified command plan” for a single global regional structure has been in place.

The EU-27 are unlikely ever to shift towards a regional approach. The sociology – the norms and practices – of the diplomatic world militates against this. But this could be an area where the EEAS can add value. Instead of simply re-branding the EC delegations into EU embassies, it may be worth considering amalgamating these into a few large regional offices, led by a high-ranking diplomat and with a multi-country remit and budget. Such EU “hubs”, for example in Nairobi, Jakarta or Buenos Aires could bring together political, developmental and military activities. The EU has already made some headway, by appointing EUSRs, each with a regional remit i.e. the Great Lakes. But the post-Lisbon set-up could take this further.

Integrated government

Success in facing the challenges of the 21st Century requires all elements of national power, not just military. But to do so requires overcome the besetting sin of modern government – departmentalism. That is, the excessively strict division of work among departments with too little intercommunication and cooperation.

There were – and are – many arguments for the traditional model of government – of vertical functional departments, organised according to the service provided, over horizontal, cross-cutting units, organised according to clients. But the model has given rise to a series of intractable problems: stove-piping, duplication, and reactive and policy-making. While ‘departmentalism’ has plagued all policy areas, the problems of have perhaps been the greatest in the governments’ approach to conflict and post-conflict policy because these areas, much more than any other area of public policy, do not fit into neatly into departmental boundaries; they cut across all government departments.

Iintegrating the efforts of multiple agencies – foreign, development and defense ministries – has not proven successful. Most large EU countries find this exceedingly difficult to do while small states often do not have the resources. In Britain, there is evidence that despite the Public Service Agreements shared between MoD, DfiD and FCO, and numerous projects like the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Basra and Helmand, actual collaboration in missions is limited. This should not be surprising.

In “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing,” Bob Komer, wrote how the U.S experienced similar problems in Vietnam. He pointed out that even though many in the individual bureaucracies knew what needed to be done, and even though there were high level policies in place articulating the right strategy, individual organizations reverted to the tasks they were designed to conduct. They optimized for success in their respective stovepipes, but this resulted in less-than-optimal outcomes for the overall endeavor. 

Rather than replicate the stove-piped bureaucracy in the EU-27 – which has been the tendency with EU institutions hitherto – the EEAS is an opportunity to develop a model of government that avoids this departmentalism. This would mean creating cadres of staff who feel equally at home in several departmental areas. For example, all military officers who make it to 1*-level must have served in a non-defence department. Equally, senior civilians must to have worked in or with a defence ministry, the military or the intelligence community.

Tied to this, a budget process must be established that supports inter-departmental goals. And rather than create units and positions like those of member states – for example Defence Attachés – the EEAS should establish the kind of organisations and posts that the EU-27 find difficult to set-up, e.g. in security sector reform. While Eu-27 may have a defence attaché in an embassy in one country, the EU “hub would have a security and justice sector Attaché, perhaps a senior police officer, who can engage in police, defence and judicial reform in way that his national counterparts cannot.  


A number of recent studies, especially in the US, have called for new thinking in how to structure our foreign policy bureaucracies. The 9/11 Commission, for example, called for a “different way of organizing government” that recognizes the need for greater integration of effort in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions: horizontally across all departments and agencies; and vertically up-and-down all levels of decision-making and implementation i.e. not simply at the senior level, but down through middle management and out to the front-line. Concerns for how to address issues that involve more than one country – climate, migration, diseases, and terrorism – have received similar attention.

While the final shape and form of the EEAS may ultimately be determined through backroom-deals under the French Presidency in late 2008, the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty will provide an opportunity to develop a new type of foreign policy bureaucracy, which can help the EU-27 address the many cross-cutting, and cross-country challenges that their current organisational set-up are ill-equipped to handle.

No doubt the pressure will be on to keep the EEAS small and its development gradual. But a greater prize looms – which can help amplify EU27 policies without duplicating what Ministries of Foreign Affairs are currently doing. To reach it, bold thinking will be needed.

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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