We need a European foreign policy. Improbable? Yes. Impossible? No

Critics consider us weak and divided. But with political will and public support, we could finally get our act together

This piece was first published in The Guardian on 13 May 2009.

Fly-over country. An old people’s home. A continent choosing irrelevance. “An international actor in a state of strategic confusion.” Weak, divided and hypocritical. Perhapsburg. That is what you hear about Europe from observers in Washington, Moscow and Beijing. And that is what we Europeans have to change.

Even if you are a European with no emotional, intellectual or idealistic attachment whatsoever to the European Union – even if, that is to say, you are Britain’s likely next foreign secretary, William Hague – the rational case for the 27 member states of the EU to have a stronger, more co-ordinated foreign policy is overwhelming. In a world increasingly shaped by the rise of non-European great powers, especially China, the relative power of even the largest European state has diminished, is diminishing, and will continue to diminish. (This is not to be confused with national decline: a country can simultaneously be getting richer and becoming relatively less powerful in the world.)

If you think I am talking about some remote calculus of influence abroad, the diplomats’ daily salmon and wine but of marginal interest to an ordinary joe, think again. As we have all discovered in the last six months, our own jobs, life savings, mortgages, health and personal safety are directly affected by global challenges such as the worldwide financial and economic crisis, mass migration, international organised crime, climate change and the threat of pandemics – none of which can by met by any state on its own. Even on the coolest Palmerstonian calculation of national self-interest, the case for a larger concentration of power among neighbouring, economically integrated states is irrefutable.

Here in Stockholm, a group of Europeans, including think-tankers, businesspeople, writers, diplomats, civil society activists, a brace of former presidents and a bevy of former foreign ministers, met earlier this week to pursue the necessary conclusion. The US has a long-established Council on Foreign Relations, one of whose purposes is to improve American foreign policy. The recently established European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), by contrast, has to work towards the creation of a European foreign policy before it can begin to improve it. As they say in the old cookbooks: first find your hare. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ECFR and serve on its board.)

The obstacles in the way of creating something that deserves the name of European foreign policy are large. They are institutional, political and, in the broadest sense, cultural. Europe has spent far too much time already on its institutional arrangements. The patchwork Lisbon treaty, which is certainly not a European constitution, will enable us to improve some of them, provided the Irish vote yes to it (given a few added inducements, such as each country retaining a European commissioner) in a second referendum this autumn, and the Eurosceptic Polish and Czech presidents sign what their parliaments have already voted for.

We could then start the hard grind of putting together more of the human and financial resources on the two opposite sides of the Rue de la Loi in Brussels, in the European Commission and the inter-governmental Council of Ministers, to create an External Action Service (ie foreign service) under the successor to Javier Solana as EU high representative for foreign and security policy – sometimes informally but not accurately described as EU foreign minister. There would also be a new so-called president of the European Council, the top table of EU heads of government, with a two-and-a-half-year term.

Talking here to a leading figure in the upcoming Swedish presidency of the EU, one understands what a hectic circus it will be in the last few months of 2009. If the Irish have voted yes (perhaps in October), presidents Lech Kaczynski of Poland and Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic have signed, and Germany has formed a coalition government (which normally takes several weeks) after its general election at the end of September, the Swedish presidency may hold a special summit to agree on the first president of the European Council, a new high representative and other measures of implementation. This will involve the usual complex horse trading – between different countries, left and right, small states and large, north and south, old members and new, Latin, Germanic and Slav, male and female – with the two new men or women expected to be in some vaguely representative balance with those riding the two other horses of the EU’s prospective quadriga: the president of the European Commission and the president of the European Parliament. (The US has one president who really is a president; the EU has three or four, none of whom really are.)

The names that emerge from behind the closed doors of those smoke-free rooms will matter. Tony Blair is among the not formally declared candidates for what newspapers will wrongly call “president of Europe”. I’m told the French are pushing their colourless ex-commissioner Michel Barnier for high representative. I think we would do better to have a less high-profile, more consensus-building chairman (which is what the job really is) of the European Council, but a more high-profile, harder-hitting high representative: someone like Joschka Fischer, for example, currently one of the co-chairs of ECFR, or Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. It’s the high rep, not the so-called president, who will have the staff and the money, and whose main job it will be to start pulling together a better co-ordinated European foreign policy – if the member states will allow that.

For even if the Irish vote yes, which they have a perfect right not to, and even if the best possible institutional arrangements and personalities are put in place, Europe will still not have a foreign policy unless the national leaders of key member states have the political will to make it happen. At the moment, that seems unlikely. President Nicolas Sarkozy was a dynamic and at times effective leader of the French presidency of the EU, but has a tendency to confuse Europe with France, and France with Sarkozy. Germany is increasingly a “normal” European country in the sense of putting its own short-term national interests first (a sad subject to which I will return). From 2010, British foreign policy will probably by run by Eurosceptics like William Hague. And Silvio Berlusconi is, well, Silvio Berlusconi.

Even if there were to be the political will from the leaders of key states, there are still deeper problems of what you could call political culture. Our politics are still overwhelmingly national and our media are still mainly national, or at least confined to particular linguistic communities: Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanophone, Germanophone, Polonophone, Lusophone, Estonophone. So it’s very difficult to have a genuinely pan-European popular debate about foreign policy. (This column, for example, may appear in translation in a number of European newspapers, but even that will be patchy and unusual.) And most Europeans do not have the habit of thinking strategically about Europe’s interests in the world. How can you make a foreign policy without a polity and without public support?

So our Chinese, Russian and American critics will have strong reasons to conclude that Europe won’t get its act together. Against the odds, our job is to prove them wrong.


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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