Bringing out the big guns

The Lisbon Treaty may increase the EU’s chances of developing a foreign policy that is both coherent and strong

This piece was published in E!Sharp on 15 September 2009.  

and Euro-enthusiasts have one thing in common these days: they are all unhappy
about the state of EU foreign policy. The former complain about attempts to
curtail national freedom of action; the latter are frustrated about the lack of
EU-level coordination.

in Tehran in
August showed that the enthusiasts have more to be upset about. Even though
European governments have expressed concern about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s
usurpation of power, they have reacted in different ways. The French, British,
Italian and German leaders refused to send messages of congratulation on his
re-election. Most EU countries also failed to send representatives to his
inauguration. But a British envoy attended the event, as did the Swedish
ambassador to Iran.
So much for a common stance.

Kissinger is said to have once asked, “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” This confusion, some now hope, will be fixed by
the Lisbon Treaty, should the Irish vote for the document in their October 2 referendum.
The treaty enhances the role of the high representative for foreign and
security policy and create a European “External Action Service” to be staffed
by the European Commission, the Council secretariat and member state officials.

exactly this will fit together is still anyone’s guess. Fights about the
high-level jobs – the presidents of the European Commission and European
Council and the high representative – have pushed into the background talk of
how to make the bureaucratic set-up work. Moreover, improved structures do not
guarantee successful diplomacy. That is not only, or even mainly, about
institutions; it is about effective policies. Effective means being proactive;
being willing to take controversial positions, even when powerful actors
disagree; and being willing to back up policies with all available means, up to
and including economic coercion and, as a last resort, military force.

kind of approach is usually the hallmark of superpowers and bigger states with
centuries-old traditions of foreign policy-making and a worldwide diplomatic
presence. Newer states, whose experience of global diplomacy is shorter, have
mainly regional interests. Because Europe is made of many small states and a
few big states, the EU’s default position is not the activist, big-country,
foreign policy pursued by the likes of France
and Britain, but the
cautious, accommodative small-nation stance associated with Austria, Slovenia,
Finland and Spain.

the EU has deployed over 20 peacekeeping missions, led negotiations with Iran
on its nuclear programme and negotiated a ceasefire to last year’s
Russia-Georgia war. But these cases have often seen France,
Britain and Germany
push for a particular EU stance, bringing the rest of the 27-strong bloc with

the large EU states do not chart a course – which is the case on most issues,
most of the time – the EU reverts to foreign policy type. So it is timid in the
face of electoral fraud in Albania;
unwilling to boycott the “Durban II” World Conference against Racism;
and slow to follow up its rhetoric against Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with
action. Worse still, as the big EU states can only prioritise so much, their
diplomats often sublimate their activist instincts in the pursuit of a common
EU position, which rarely emerges (and, when it does, is often weak – or worse,

are exceptions to this rule. The EU’s failure to deal with Russia can be blamed on Germany’s accommodative Russia policy. Conversely, small
states can punch above their proverbial weight; Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl
Bildt “bigs up” his country’s international profile. And the EU can be united
and strong: it was so vis-à-vis Burma
and Serbia.
But in the day-to-day interactions that make up the main part of a diplomat’s
work, it is “New Europe” – rather than, as former US Defence Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld thought, “Old Europe” – which makes the EU ineffectual.

this problem be fixed? The outlook is bleak. The lack of a Europe-wide security
culture is well-known. And future rounds of enlargement are likely to introduce
more small states into the Union, reinforcing
the problem.

are grounds for hope. Security policy is always going to be hard, especially
for those countries like Sweden,
Austria, Finland and Ireland which have a history of
neutrality, but foreign policy ought to be easier. Several smaller EU states
have also changed their outlook. Denmark
is no longer a foot-dragging, neutral-leaning state, but an active player in
NATO and a close ally of the US.
The EU has also become more activist, for example on Kosovo’s independence.
Having a permanent EU presidency, instead of the current six-monthly diplomatic
relay, which puts smaller states in charge of the EU’s foreign policy most of
the time, will help.

EU can have a foreign policy of sorts, but this is not a given outcome and the
policy might not be a good one per se. With the Eurosceptic Conservative
likely to win power in Britain next year, the focus for
the EU will have to be on delivering foreign policy results. Having a common
position on Russia or China
only works if the position is right and strong. Put simply: common but weak is
not good enough if the EU is to become a global player.

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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