Lisbon passed: Will there be real change in Brussels?

The much-awaited Lisbon Treaty is now finally in place. But will it make any difference?

The much-awaited Lisbon Treaty is now finally in place. Any moment now, the EU will emerge from its pre-Lisbon cocoon and show itself as fully-fledged global actor. Expect an emergent China, an assertive Russia and a declining U.S to stand back in awe. Any minute now. Waiting. See it yet? No? That’s because while the ratification provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the EU to improve the efficiency of its foreign policy apparatus — and is cause for celebration — its implementation could be fraught.

The appointment of a High Representative for CSFP, who will also be a Vice-President of the European Commission and the establishment of a European diplomatic service, are much-needed innovations. The prospect of the EU spending aid money where its foreign policies priorities are is welcome. But putting this joined-up system in place will require changes in both the Council Secretariat, which services EU states, and of the European Commission. Though EU foreign ministers agreed a blueprint for the new set-up last week for how to proceed, many details are unclear. Particularly the relationship between the Council President and the High Representative is unclear and will be shaped by the initial office-holders. But everyone is clear that the potential for an institution-destroying battle is ever-present.

Second, EU’s foreign policy set-up suffers from a number of institutional deficiencies, which will not automatically be remedied by the Lisbon Treaty. As Koen Vervaeke, the EUSR to the African Union, has noted, the Lisbon Treaty may actually place a greater bureaucratic burden on people undertaking his role. It certainly has the potential to exacerbate the micromanaging tendencies in Brussels. In our recent report, Richard Gowan and I looked at the way in which the EU needs to adopt to deal with failing states. In many cases, it will require changes in the EU’s diplomatic SOPs, including through greater delegation to the field.

Third, institutional negotiations on the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty seem to have missed a sense of how international affairs have changed over the last couple of years, especially on issues like climate change, and how the EU should model its organizational set-up to deal with these changes. Diplomacy has retained many of the features since its practices were originally codified in the 18th century. Envoys still demarche foreign governments, and respect the rules laid down in the Vienna Convention of 1963. But on issues like climate change, the diplomatic focus is less about changing the perspectives and behaviour of nation-states, but about influencing people, business, and cities. So far, discussions on Lisbon’s implementation have been quite old-school in their conception of the future set-up. There has been no talk of having EU climate envoys in cities as opposed to countries, for example.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, EU foreign policy depends on European governments. And new institutions are no surrogate for common interests and strategy. As Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro have just shown in their latest research on the EU’s US policy, divergence among EU states is what hampers effectiveness, not the lack of institutions. Nicu Popescu and Andrew Wilson have drawn much the same conclusion in their research on Europe’s Russia policy.

So the Lisbon Treaty has the potential 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. In his recent speech, British foreign minister David Miliband laid out why this matters. Without greater coherence – and an integrative system in place – European countries, however big, will become bystanders in a G2 world run by China and the US. A coherent framework for cooperation will help Europeans get a clearer sense of each other’s priorities and to develop a shared idea of the foreign policy challenge they must confront. Butterflies are beautiful, in part because they take time to develop, and at no stage during their caterpillar period look as if they can emerge colourful and lithe. The same is the case for common and effective EU foreign policy.


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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