The EAS and Europe’s place in the world

Building the EAS is not simply about backroom Brussels politics and bureaucratic infighting. It is about giving Europe the means to punch its weight in a changing world

On Thursday Catherine Ashton delivered her blueprint for a new European External Action Service. Getting to this point has been the mother of all bureaucratic disputes, but that means that the big picture has been neglected. Getting an EAS, and getting it right, is essential if Europe is to punch its weight in the world. 

The backdrop is defined by three key trends: a shift in power away from Europe and towards parts of the world such as China and India; a foreign policy agenda defined not just by links between nation states but issues that cut across borders, such as energy, climate change, terrorism and migration. Thirdly, European power has become increasingly fragmented. This is not just the familiar question about who to call when an outside leader wants to speak to Europe, or the growth in the EU to twenty-seven members. It is also the completely destructive fragmentation within the EU’s institutions. For instance, when dealing with a country such as Ukraine or Egypt, trade will be dealt with by a trade department, but without any linkage to how the EU is dealing with issues such as human rights, politics, aid or military matters. The whole aim of Lisbon was to end this fragmentation, build a service that could carry a coherent European voice in the world as potent as our economic clout, and make the EU institutionally better able to deal with new transnational foreign policy challenges.

Unfortunately, when the rubber hit the road this grand vision disappeared, replaced by different institutions having almighty rows over each particular element. Bits of the Commission fought against the idea that the EAS would have desks dedicated to subjects like climate change; the development lobby resisted the EAS having any say over development budgets, but was instead restricted to a high-level theoretical view of the subject; the Commission and some in the parliament wanted to have a veto over appointments; while individual member states also looked at what they wanted to get out of an EAS.

Catherine Ashton’s proposals are the first concrete step towards solving these rows and moving back towards a grand vision. The proposals show that she believes she has a mandate to move forward, with a good chance of getting member states to sign up over the next few weeks.

Getting here has been a challenge for Ashton. Her power comes from her double role – as vice president of the Commission and High Representative of the Council – and the ability that comes from that of  playing the European Commission off against the member states. But her relationship with both is complex.  Ashton – to a large extent – owes her appointment as HR/VP to the strong support of President Barroso.  But as the post-Lisbon Europe stopped just being a theoretical possibility, many in the Commission worried that their power would be undermined by the establishment of the EAS. On the other hand, the member states took a long time to wake up to the stakes involved in building the service. They are also amongst the most difficult allies any official can have, backing you in private meetings but rarely missing an opportunity to brief against you when your back is turned. It was only when things got so bad that the member states thought the Commission would take power from them that they acted. At the informal EU foreign ministers’ Gymnich meeting on 5th and 6th March, Ashton emerged with the backing and support that she needed to defend her vision for the EAS in two meetings of the European Commission.  

At this Wednesday’s meeting of the Commission there was a good outcome on the most controversial issues and Ashton won rights for the EAS to co-ordinate a number of cross-cutting issues, to have a detailed input on programming (including in development), and on EU delegations and staffing.  The Commission also accepted that one third of EAS staff will come from  the Member States, but there has been disagreement about timing. The Commission says if Member States want to place staff in EAS quickly, Member States have to pay for it since there is no room in the 2010 budget.

Buoyed by the discussion, Ashton yesterday sent out her 10-page EAS  proposal to the Member States. The proposal will be presented in Coreper on Tuesday 30 March where it is likely to get support from member states.

The next hurdle could come with the European Parliament which wants  to assert its authority.  Apparently they are demanding that the EAS  decision, the staff regulation and the financial regulation are treated in one package, although the Parliament only has formal  influence over the staff regulation and the financial regulation. By  treating it as a package, the Parliament hopes to be able to influence Ashton’s proposal for the set-up of the service.

Ashton has had her first big success since she took the job 3 months ago.  Getting here has been messy, and an object lesson in backroom politics, bureaucratic infighting and the difficulties of making the EU work. But the EAS is more than just another Brussels institution, and all those who hope for Europe to have its voice heard in the world should be pleased.

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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