After Lisbon: Is Europe becoming a global power?

The European Union will start 2010 under von Rompuy and Ashton. This duo is supposed to provide the Union with a single voice in the wider world. Will it?

It is almost 40 years since Henry Kissinger demanded a single telephone
number from the Europeans. The joke is as old as Methuselah. But now the
European Union finally has one. Well, actually, it is not one but two telephone
numbers, and if you include the Commission then it is three. And, frankly, it
is questionable whether President Obama will ever dial any of them.
Nevertheless, the European Union’s new competences and power structures are
beginning to crystallize. They are still not completely clear. There will be
toings and froings over von Rompuy’s and Ashton’s actual remits within the
European Union. However it is clear that there will soon be more foreign policy
governance at the EU level than before, and that is fantastic news.

Jean Monnet said that institutions generate gravitational force, extending
their influence into the political sphere, clearing a space for themselves.
This should also apply to the new posts at the top of the European Union and
the European External Action Service (EEAS), the Union’
foreign service. The objective is to turn the EEAS into an innovative,
post-modern foreign policy instrument that will not only enable the European
Union to defend its values and views in the world, but also better protect the
common interests of the member states.

This noble goal was severely jeopardized by a grotesque dispute over
personnel in the run up to the nominations. Weeks before the special summit in
November, second rate names for the posts designed to embody the European
Union’s future strength were circulating, while prominent candidates were
refused nomination in order not to jeopardize their national careers. Important
EU countries such as Germany
failed even to make any personnel recommendations at all. The symbolism of the
Lisbon Treaty appeared to dissipate before its ink was dry. The European Union
was on the verge of botching one of its finest hours.  

Admittedly: von Rompuy and Ashton are not the most well known. However, they
have the bonus of being unknown quantities – not an a priori disadvantage for a
new office. Following the difficult nominations, everything now appears to be
proceeding quickly and the establishment of the new posts and institutions is
rapidly exerting a unique gravitational force within the system.

Citizen-Friendly Conductor

In the future, a European president will preside over the work of the
European Council, the Union’s highest body
composed of the heads of the member states. Furthermore, together with the
President of the Commission, the new president will be responsible for the
preparation, continuity, and cohesion of the European Council’s work. He
reports to the European Parliament. In addition, von Rompuy will act as the
European Union’s foreign representative in matters of foreign and security
policy. The treaty lays down guidelines for the exercise of office, however it
does not specify the tasks in detail. It is also unclear whether the president
will receive his own administrative apparatus. His executive powers will be de
facto restricted; here the Commission President, today Jose Manuel Barroso,
will prevail. The work of the Council of Ministers will also be largely beyond
his remit. Here the rotating national presidencies, next up Spain, will
steer the course. And with a view to foreign policy, it will be necessary to
outline his responsibilities relative to the foreign minister, who will head
the European diplomatic service and the Council of Foreign Ministers.  

Nevertheless, the prominent role of the EU president in the future system
will enable him to present himself as the face of the European Union, and
provide what the European Union is most lacking: a profile that European
citizens can identify with. Through him, Europe
will become tangible and visible. Beyond the filigree legal competence
structures, and in spite of the pre-programmed conflict potential, as President
of the Council of the European Union, von Rompuy will have the opportunity to prepare
the European themes of concern to its citizens, establishing a set of
priorities, and guiding the debate such that the individual EU institutions are
all working together under his direction. This would enable President von
Rompuy – as a man of strong ideas and chairman of the debate – to become the
actual choreographer of the new Europe,
without losing himself in petty-minded questions of authority or becoming
sidelined. Whether this proves successful will depend on his personality –
however the prestige of the new office should provide a good basis.

The Real Trump Card  

The new foreign minister has a pragmatic mandate, but with a well-equipped
power base. Of central importance is her role as vice president, firmly
anchoring her in the European Commission, while simultaneously presiding over
the new EEAS. The EEAS represents the successful overcoming of the previous
pillar structure (common policies vs. intergovernmental decisions), which led
to the division of the individual policy areas according to Council and
Commission jurisdiction. The Council frequently had a political agenda, while
the Commission had the structures and the financial means to implement policy.
The EEAS, which will be composed of civil servants from the Council, the
Commission, and the member states, will serve to bring together these two
pillars. At the same time, the European Union will establish diplomatic

Will EU foreign policy automatically present a unified face? Naturally not –
or at least not to the same extent everywhere. For the foreseeable future there
will still be national embassies in Washington,
Moscow, or Beijing,
which will have a greater influence than the EU missions. However, the European
Union will be able to successfully play its new foreign policy trump card —
the common diplomatic missions — elsewhere. In the Balkan states, Ukraine, or Armenia, EU policy, like structural
aid and the pre-accession programs, has already generated considerable added
value compared to the efforts of the national embassies.  

Furthermore, many countries, above all the smaller member states, are hard
pushed to maintain their own embassies everywhere. However, at a time when the
world’s geostrategy and that of Europe is
undergoing a shift, it is precisely these states that are of special
significance. States such as Tajikistan
or Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan or even Georgia, which until very recently
tended to be of secondary importance, are now developing into strategic nodal
points for European energy supply and European security architecture in
general. The new EU foreign policy will be particularly effective in Tbilisi, Baku, and Odessa, places where it
is especially needed. Here the EEAS will be able to demonstrate its new
strength. Should the experiences prove positive, then in time the relevance of
the EU missions will extend to other states and regions, for example the
African states. The same applies to the Western Balkan states. Even now the EU
missions in the region, albeit still divided according to Commission and
Council jurisdiction, are the de facto first port of call for emerging foreign
policy and its future in the respective countries. With the establishment of
strong, unified EU missions, the preconditions, at least in institutional
terms, will be in place for EU foreign policy to act as the main lever for
development in the Balkans.

Post-Modern Foreign Policy

The European Union’s next objective is the establishment of a post-modern
foreign policy. This will include breaking down the classic departmental
divisions, for example, the division between classic foreign and development
policy, as well as that between foreign and security policy. These divisions
are still reflected at a national level in the majority of the EU member
states. The differences between the “communities” of foreign and development
policy makers are great. The resources of the various jurisdictions are
jealousy defended. Consequently, whether that section of the Commission
responsible for development policy project work should be integrated into the
EEAS or not, was and remains one of the most contentious issues for the EEAS.
Nevertheless, the EEAS will work toward strengthening links between development
projects and foreign policy, i.e. strategic goals, integrating civil military
missions into foreign policy, and connecting climate protection goals with
development policy. The interdisciplinary aspect, even though it will take
time, should emerge as a decisive advantage of the EEAS, an area in which the European
Union has traditionally been strong. The turn away from “classic foreign
policy,” could, for example, consist of establishing EU diplomatic missions
responsible for climate protection in those Chinese megacities that are the
greatest emission sinners.

Not a Power Like the US
or Russia

Judging EU foreign policy on whether it will operate like the United States or Russia,
or as a “counterweight” to the United
States, is in danger of overlooking the
salience of the new diplomatic service. Despite all the European Union’s
institutional statehood and state-like elements, it is not about the imitation
of the superpowers. The European Union will never be able to compete at this
level with the likes of China
or the United States.
The objective is better coordination of the diplomatic services of the nation
states and the EEAS. The task is not the substitution of the national by the
European, but rather the creative participation of the national diplomatic
services in the European service. Only by such means will the European Union be
true to its motto “unity in diversity.” It is less about one voice, than a
well-led choir. The foreign minister as conductor would be well advised to
integrate the national foreign ministers into her work through a delegation of responsibilities,
not least because she has a huge workload. For example, place the Spanish
foreign minister in charge of a mission for Latin America, maybe entrust Italy with a mission for Libya, put the French in charge of the
Mediterranean region, or entrust the Polish with the task of keeping a special
eye on Ukraine.

These measures would not just make sense in terms of promoting a better
integration of national and European policy, they would also grant the member
states more say and generate a greater sense of “ownership.” This would not
only allow the expertise of individual countries in particular regions to be
used effectively — specific policy goals could also be given more weight by
channeling them through the European Union. Far from being a competitor, the
EEAS could function as a transmission belt for national foreign policy goals,
which the smaller member states in particular stand to profit from, while the
EEAS itself reaps the benefits of a tightly woven fabric of experience,
networks and traditions. At an institutional level, the European Union would be
better equipped for establishing its influence in regions such as the Middle
East, if Ashton – as the European Union has already done in the case of Iran –
were to concentrate on focusing and coordinating the policy approaches of the
major states, and then reinforce them with the weight of the European Union.

Superpower without Teeth?

The Lisbon
treaty provides clear advantages in security and defense policy. For the first
time, the European Union will delegate a specific defense policy task to a
“group of states” and deploy a multinational “EU battlegroup.” The treaty also
establishes the so-called “permanent structured cooperation,” enabling those
states that display strong commitment to defense policy issues to join forces
on a sustained basis and make decisions according to a qualified majority.
These combined measures do not turn the European Union into a military power:
it has no standing army nor the intention of establishing one. Nevertheless,
the reform allows a whole series of flexible military measures beneath the
combat mission level, elements of a post-modern foreign policy that combine
classic diplomacy and civil military factors.

The more energy and commitment the European Union invests in establishing
European Union missions, then the greater the likelihood that non-member states
will respond to a common European Union foreign policy, and the more unified it
will ultimately be. Naturally, this will take time. The same applies to the two
new offices.

The new personnel and institutions will push for a common EU foreign policy
agenda, albeit gently, as offices and institutions require, in fact compel,
compromise and consensus. The institutional framework and content of European foreign
policy are mutually related. It is correct that the European Union has not so
much suffered from the lack of a uniform policy analysis in recent years, but
from the absence of a suitable instrument for its common implementation.
However, with the Lisbon Treaty, this is now in place. Even if the European
Union uses this treaty patiently and consistently, it is unlikely to be
transformed into a superpower in the near future, but maybe it will become a
trend setter for a modern form of foreign policy in a globalized world.

This piece was first published by Internationale Politik.

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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