Whilst the war in the Caucasus provided a much-needed respite from the intra-institutional wrangling which has characterised EU debate since the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, it has also exposed the degree to which the EU needs to beef-up its foreign policy apparatus.
Not because the new EU institutions would necessarily have prevented the conflict or forged unity between Germany, and the Baltic states. But rather because the bloc was crippled in the run-up to the conflict it had to rely on an under-staffed, non-resident EU Special Representative for information while only a third of EU states are actually represented in Tblisi. Though the French EU Presidency focused southwards and its predecessor, Slovenia, was keen to prioritize the Balkans the last serious discussion by EU leaders of the Caucasus was in the first half of 2007. But even then, the Russian-Georgian flashpoint was carefully avoided.
Instead of dealing with this lacuna head-on, it looks unlikely that the Irish will present the Council with a clear route forward. Polls suggest that a second referendum will lead to another, even bigger defeat of the Treaty. Nor is it clear that the Irish could be offered anything concrete, the “No” campaign was too idiosyncratic to be effectively divided by offering opt-outs, like Denmark was in 1992, in one or two areas. Wanting to avoid further isolation, the Irish, skilful negotiators that they are, will avoid a clear statement. Nicolas Sarkozy has shown himself to be a formidable shuttle diplomat, but whether he has the temperament and confidence to forge a new bargain is unclear.
The most likely – and politically comfortable – answer may therefore be another postponement. Solemnly, Europe´s leaders will declare their empathy for the Irish Taoiseach, promise they will not forego the dream of making Europe a global player – but not do much more.
Kicking things into the long grass is, of course, a European specialty. If the Irish say they will run another referendum, but are unclear about the exact time – preferring to wait for a more propitious political and economic moment – this particular frame may be frozen for a long time indeed. Then the usual pre-referendum chorus can be expected to start up. European leaders will agree not to develop new initiatives, fearful of how these will play in Ireland. Richard Nixon’s question of how policy proposals would play in Peoria may now get a European variant – “how will this play in Cork, Minister?”
Yet rather than expand the number of options, procrastination often constricts the available choices. Rather than dull the electorate’s skepticism, voters become used to ad hoc fixes – whose real costs are hidden from view – and are reinforced in their belief that the EU´s set-up requires little change.
But as the EU´s underperformance in the run-up to the recent conflict shows, the system is broken. European states – coordinated loosely and reliant on the personal chemistry between leaders – struggle to make an impact on both short-term crises but also slow-moving yet key challenges like climate change, human rights, energy policy, counter-radicalisation and migration. Even the largest European countries like Germany, France and Britain often prove too small and ill-equipped to make a real difference on issues citizens care about or problems that affect their lives. And only by acting together can the EU-27 hope to stem their loss of influence.
For European governments to do so, a number of problems need to be addressed. First, the EU has to get over the rivalry between the Council Secretariat and the European Commission, as well as the lack of coordination between national policies and those of EU institutions. Second, the bloc needs to ensure that it is represented where it matters for the EU as a whole. Only two EU countries have embassies in Chad and Guinea Bissau, even though both play hosts to ESDP missions. Third, with changes in the field of diplomacy underway and Ministries of Foreign Affairs undergoing reform, so the EU’s set-up must adapt to shifts in the actors, structure and business procedures of international relations.
The Lisbon Treaty promised to deal with the first set of these problems, joining-up tools in the Commission and the Council Secretariat, giving one person – the High Representative – the power to coordinate EU foreign policy, creating a non-rotating President of the European Council and creating a European diplomatic corps – the External Action Service. Yet without Irish participation, the Lisbon Treaty is as good as dead or at least on life-support.
Instead of denying or bemoaning its passing, Europe’s leaders should accept they now live in a post-Lisbon world. They should zoom in on the CSFP elements of the treaty, take from these what makes sense, leave what in hindsight was ill-prepared and, via intra-institutional agreements, try to re-shape the EU´s foreign policy apparatus. That way, the EU can be better prepared to deal with crises such the Georgia conflict.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.