At Long Last, a Sign of Leadership From Ashton

La Haute représentante pour la politique extérieure et de sécurité commune Catherine Ashton, a enfin publié un programme ambitieux pour le Service européen d’action extérieure (SEAE) qu’elle dirige. Elle s’appuie sur quelques succès récents, au Kosovo et en Egypte. Un commentaire de Jan Techau pour Carnegie Edowment for Peace.

Yesterday, a brief shiver went down the spines of the few ardent Brussels-based foreign policy wonks who have not yet left for their summer vacations. The long-awaited official review of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s external relations arm, became public. Finally, the EU is showing some signs of foreign policy leadership.

Signed by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton herself, the document was first leaked to select journalists. It then quickly found its way into the Twittersphere and finally some mainstream media outlets.

Everyone awoke from their summer slumber in an instant. How would the much-criticized Ashton take on the task of reviewing the service that she made—or, as some say, failed to make ?

As it turns out, she presented a strong document that addresses all the major shortcomings of the EEAS in straightforward language and offers a clear way forward for the troubled institution. Most importantly, however, it is a document of ambition. The review makes it very clear that the EEAS has some serious aspirations, and that is a good thing.

It is obvious that the EEAS, and particularly Ashton herself, feel emboldened by a recent series of diplomatic successes.

Those successes started when the EU last year took on the mandate of maintaining diplomatic relations with Iran while the United States was absorbed in an interminable presidential election campaign. There was no huge progress in relations between Tehran and the West, but Ashton and her team handled the mandate accident-free and even built a modicum of trust with the Iranians.

A further triumph was the deftly negotiated political compromise between Serbia and Kosovo on notoriously tricky questions over the status of the breakaway republic. This success was backed up by German economic and political weight, but it was achieved by Ashton personally.

And the achievements continue even now as the high representative has become the most prominent Western diplomat on the ground in post-Morsi Egypt. There, she is trying to reinstate a political reform process that includes all political forces in a deeply divided society.

Pushed aside, at least momentarily, are the endless stories about demoralized staff, a lack of leadership and team spirit, and the dysfunctional workings of the EEAS headquarters.

In this week’s review, Ashton tackles a long list of shortcomings and presents 35 concrete suggestions for change. Among them is the creation of a deputy high representative so she can finally delegate some of her many obligations to a legitimate second-in-command.

Most importantly, she tackles head-on the two key structural weaknesses of the current EEAS setup : the difficult relationship with the European Commission, and what Carnegie Europe’s Stefan Lehne calls member state “buy-in” or trust.

On the first weakness, the review describes in detail the unresolved issue of a proper and logical division of labor between the commission and the EEAS, including the organizational, staffing, budgeting, and operational shortcomings that result. Acknowledging this entails a hefty dose of self-criticism, as Ashton herself is partly responsible for the poor coordination between the two organizations and their many bodies, groups, and committees. She is also a vice president of the commission, after all.

Ashton now wants to make better use of her dual role, which means bringing the commissioners with external portfolios (in particular trade, neighborhood, enlargement, and humanitarian aid) closer together under her coordinating function. This will prove tricky as operational budgets—and therefore power—still lie with the commission. But she hints at a possible deal between the next commission president and her own successor that would unify policymaking.

The second major shortcoming that Ashton’s review deals with is the “buy-in” problem. From the outset, only a limited number of EU member states had a real interest in the success of the EEAS. Nobody really wanted a self-confident, independently minded diplomatic service that would provide real guidance and serve as a practical aide to national diplomacies.

For a very long initial period, Ashton and her team never really found a way around the mistrust and sometimes outright sabotage they had to endure from national capitals. With Iran, Serbia/Kosovo, and now Egypt under her belt, she feels strong enough to tell the skeptics : let us lead you, you won’t regret it.

Several times in her review, Ashton demands stronger policy planning capacities, the classic tool of foreign policy leadership. She also requests a bigger role for the EEAS in EU ministerial decisionmaking and even the Commission’s annual external relations work plan. Ashton states in the document that “[t]he EEAS is uniquely well placed in the EU institutional framework to promote the strategic direction of the EU’s external action [. . .]”—and she means it.

Ashton is not naive about the service’s limitations. But she has learned that whenever the member states are too scared to expose themselves, too lacking in credibility because of historical baggage, or just too preoccupied with other things, she and the EEAS have a chance to give EU foreign policy a direction.

Not all of the review’s suggestions will be put into practice—maybe not even half of them will. But the value of the document is the clear guidance it provides on the direction in which Ashton wants to steer the EEAS. Such a blueprint had been painfully absent before.

The EU now has a track record of real-world diplomatic accomplishments. After the high representative’s long absence from internal team-building, she now seems determined to use these accomplishments to create confidence both inside and outside the service. In many ways, this is a first sign of real leadership from her. It doesn’t come a moment too soon.

With this smart, realistic, and ambitious document in the public domain, the ball is now in the court of the EU member states and institutions. Those who never missed a chance to criticize the nascent EEAS must now demonstrate how serious they are about reforming and empowering it. The game has only just begun.