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The EEAS needs cooperation from member states

By Adam Hug. Source: Public Service Europe

When leaders first floated the idea of creating a single diplomatic service for the European Union - merging the roles of the member states' foreign affairs chief (the high representative for common foreign and security policy)with the European commissioner for external relations - they were not expecting the turbulent times we live in today. The eurozone crisis, disagreement among member states over the future of the European project and the rapid rise of competing centres of power in the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - and beyond have all somewhat taken the shine off the EU's international prestige.

This challenging environment not only makes the task of Catherine Ashton's new European External Action Service more difficult - it means it is more necessary than ever to help the EU make an impact on the increasingly crowded world stage. The Foreign Policy Centre paper Europe in the world: can EU foreign policy make an impact? sets out a range of different expert views about how the union's outward looking institutions are faring - and some of the key challenges the EU faces in making a difference in the neighbourhood with its key strategic partners.

The two years since the founding of the EEAS have seen the new service get off to a rocky start as it struggled to cope with the logistical challenges of building a cohesive new service out of disparate components in an atmosphere where existing players, such as the European Commission, were keen to ensure they still had a key role to play in external affairs. However, there are signs that the organisational side of the EEAS is now beginning to make some headway as staff and new ways of working begin to bed in.

Given the challenging international environment, the EEAS is rightly focusing on how it improves EU performance with strategic partners such as the BRICS and the United States. Here, it needs to balance the differing needs of member states; assisting the national diplomacy of larger countries and helping the smaller ones get on the radar. To do this, it needs to set a limited number of strategic goals for its own work while providing an effective platform to assist national diplomacy. The second key impact area for European foreign policy is in its neighbourhood, both eastern and southern, where it has an opportunity to take a greater lead; particularly where bilateral interest is weak. There is scope for greater emphasis on ensuring agreements are upheld by partner countries, particularly in respect to human rights and democratic values - where the EU needs a more consistent approach.

The Lisbon reforms and the development of the EEAS had the key goal of enabling the EU to take swifter and more coordinated international action so that it can punch its weight in the world. While some progress has been made there are two key components to further progress. First, getting all the key elements of the union's machinery facing in the same direction is key. This could mean deepening existing efforts to coordinate activities between the commission and the EEAS, giving Ashton a greater say over the commission's external decision making - particularly in Europe's neighbourhood. A formal deputy for Ashton may also help spread the workload and mute complaints when she cannot be in two places at the same time.

The second task is to get all of the member states on the same page. While the idea of certain member states, particularly Britain, giving up their veto over further aspects of foreign policy is unlikely to get very far - developing existing efforts to bring about consensus by cooperation and effective diplomatic work may bear more fruit. Where one or two member states are not onboard with a proposed common foreign and security policy initiative supported by a clear majority of member states, developing the existing powers of abstention may help cut the Gordian knot without resorting to new majority voting powers. Currently a 'constructive abstention' binds the hands of member states not to do anything that might be seen to contradict the EU's actions, creating both a practical problem if member states disagree with the policy and a principal one if they disagree that it is a matter for the union.

Developing a form of non-binding abstention, initially on an informal basis prior to any future treaty change, may help avoid always moving at the speed of the slowest member while protecting national sovereignty. Ultimately, as with a number of EU issues, what can make a real difference is continuing to improve the competence - organisational performance – of the union's external-facing activities rather than simply providing Europe with more competences or new powers. If Europe wants to make an impact on the world stage, both member states and EU institutions need to work constructively with the EEAS to help it deliver.

This was first published on Public Service Europe