Between Hesitations and Aspirations

Le Service européen d’action extérieure n’a pas encore développé toutes ses potentialités. Il lui revient d’être le véritable centre de la politique extérieure de l’Union européenne. S’il ne saisit pas sa chance, il est voué à n’être qu’un appendice des Etats. Un commentaire de Stefan Lehne, publié dans European Voice, et repris sur le site du Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Two-and-a-half years after its creation, the European Union’s diplomatic service – the European External Action Service (EEAS) – still has a weak institutional identity. On rare occasions, such as the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina on the level of autonomy for Serbs in northern Kosovo, it displays the leadership role of a collective EU foreign ministry. On other issues, it amounts to little more than a secretariat for foreign-policy co-ordination among the member states.

It clearly has delivered a more comprehensive approach to crisis management and aspects of neighbourhood policy, but expectations that it would serve as the central hub of effective co-ordination for all dimensions of external relations have been disappointed. Greater continuity of leadership (compared to the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers) has led to more efficiency, but at the cost of a loss of a sense of ownership by the member states. The EEAS’s heterogeneous composition – of EU officials and member states’ diplomats – and its dependence on the European Commission have hampered efforts to build a coherent corporate culture and a shared sense of purpose.

While some of these difficulties relate to the circumstances at the creation of the new service – such as the financial crisis and the ensuing resource constraints – others reflect the ambivalence and confusion of the stakeholders. The great majority of member states certainly would desire a more effective EU foreign policy. However, for the big countries this should not come at the cost of their own freedom of manoeuvre and their ability to promote their profile and prestige through their national foreign policy. And for many of the smaller ones, rhetorical support for a stronger European foreign policy is not backed up by a willingness to assume the risks and costs this would entail.

Similarly, most agree that the EU will be able to become a global actor only if it overcomes the current fragmentation and manages to bring the various economic, political and security instruments together in a coherent fashion. Everybody supports co-ordination in principle, yet at the same time nobody wishes to be co-ordinated.

Many Commission functionaries view the EEAS as a ‘Trojan horse’ designed to ‘inter-governmentalise’ core competences of the European community, and some member states see behind every demand for co-ordination another EU power-grab.

Thus, following the Lisbon treaty of 2009, the EU’s foreign-policy structures currently reflect an uneasy compromise between aspirations and hesitations, hopes and doubts. This is probably inevitable. EU foreign policy cannot be introduced like a common currency, but has to grow incrementally through decades of experience of practical co-operation. The ongoing EEAS review can address some shortcomings in the current set-up, but it will not make a dramatic difference.

A Stronger Diplomatic Service

However, there are three factors that could prompt a dynamic development of EU foreign policy over the coming years.

Firstly, EU member states currently employ more than 50,000 diplomats and operate more than 2,000 diplomatic missions. Many of them face severe budgetary constraints and are forced to reduce and adjust their diplomatic networks. While national diplomacies are certainly irreplaceable as a means of promoting national interests, there are still huge gains to be made by doing more together in this area. EU delegations should become the lead infrastructure for genuine EU diplomatic teamwork on the ground. There could be a stronger European role also for consular support for EU citizens. A systematic study on ‘pooling and sharing’ in diplomacy could explore the potential and modalities of this co-operation.

Secondly, the overall demand for EU foreign policy is likely to increase in the coming years. The EU’s neighbourhood is in turmoil and the US is clearly no longer ready to play its customary lead role. Important European interests are at stake. After the huge distraction of the financial crisis, tackling these external challenges will move up the agenda again. There will be a need for more strategic thinking, for more rapid and creative diplomatic action and for upgraded crisis-management capabilities. The Lisbon structures have the potential to rise to these challenges if they receive more engagement and buy-in from the member states and the Commission.

Thirdly, the logic of globalisation is likely to drive member states closer together. One effect is the convergence of foreign-policy interests among EU member states. As a result of growing interdependence, developments in faraway places can have a greater effect on European interests than ever before. But on many of the items that now make up the agenda it is difficult to identify differences in the specific national interests of member states. As the world is shrinking, so are the differences in the interests of EU member states.

Many of the foreign-policy challenges arising today also have in common that, individually, member states can do little about them. Increasingly, only collective action at a regional and sometimes at a global level can have a significant impact. As power and economic dynamism shifts to other continents, the ability of European countries – even of the bigger ones among them – to remain relevant players in their own right will further diminish. They will be faced with a choice : either to resign themselves to a more modest role on the international stage, accepting that the decisions regarding the future global order will be taken by others ; or to combine efforts, pool resources and empower common institutions to act on their behalf.