EU foreign policy has often been criticized for being slow. For good reason: it is very slow indeed. But that may be just its character. It may even be a virtue in disguise.
To get 28 member states―among them three global players―to sign up to a common policy is a difficult task. In many cases, national views and perceived interests are so different that there is simply no consensus and therefore no common EU position.
Even if the 28 do sign up to a common policy, they may not put their national resources behind it. Member states may agree just because they do not want to be perceived as spoilers. The common line agreed to on paper may not lead to common, forceful action. And the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, may only get a weak mandate and little access to resources.
EU member states regularly find agreement on secondary agenda points, but they rarely manage to develop a strong common position on the most vital issues in the EU’s Southern and Eastern neighborhoods, in the Middle East, or in Asia. The whole of the EU is usually less than the sum of its 28 parts. And there is nothing to indicate that this is going to change anytime soon.
Disunity among member states is one reason why Ashton has designed a specific role for herself as EU foreign policy chief: a facilitator of dialogue. She managed to get Serbia and Kosovo to overcome mutual distrust, did some shuttle diplomacy between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military in Egypt, and led official talks with Iran on its nuclear program.
Facilitating dialogue is a noncontroversial approach to foreign policy. It fits into a constellation where powerful members warily guard the autonomy of their national foreign policies. But it sends the wrong message by putting the EU in the position of a “nonpower” that is interested mainly in process and has no major stake in the outcome. But the EU is not Switzerland or the UN. It is a coalition of powerful states with substantial interests.
The weakness of the high representative and her service in shaping EU foreign policy is usually discussed as a problem that can be solved. Step by step, obstacles will be overcome. National diplomacies will recognize the added value of a common EU policy. A stronger high representative can bang heads together and make member states agree.
But the problem may not just be accidental. It may have to do something with the EU’s institutional setup.
The EU’s diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (EEAS), was set up in competition to national foreign services. Its chief, the high representative, was originally conceived as an EU foreign minister, in a federalist spirit. But this is a competition the EEAS must lose. An EU foreign policy that is designed to ultimately assume control over the foreign policies of countries such as France, Britain, and Germany is set to fail, and will therefore permanently disappoint expectations. That is precisely what we have seen in recent years: big member states preventing Ashton and the EEAS from advancing into their national territory.
This competition is damaging for all sides. The EU and its member states must move from a zero-sum game toward a win-win situation. They must complement each other, with each side doing what it can do best.
What could such a division of labor look like?
Very roughly, the EEAS could focus more on medium- and long-term issues, while the member states do the day-to-day job of dealing with events. Instead of trying to catch up with member states’ diplomacies, the EU high representative could concentrate on the EU’s proven strength of shaping its regional and global environment through long-term engagement. At the same time, the EEAS should try to embed member states’ foreign policies into a larger strategic context.
Shaping the environment has been a huge EU success in the past. By offering access to the EU in return for reform, the bloc has enlarged the Western zone of liberal stability. That started with Spain, Portugal, and Greece in the 1980s and continued with Central Europe after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Now, turning the European Neighborhood Policy into another success should be a priority. Trade agreements are another tool with which the EU can shape its regional and global environment, as they connect societies and strengthen the rules-based economic order.
In the EU’s current institutional setup, however, the portfolios that oversee these longer-term policies do not belong to the high representative. Neighborhood, trade, and energy are responsibilities of the European Commission, steered by strong commissioners under the authority of the commission president. If EU external relations were to be reoriented toward longer-term, structural change, the EU foreign policy chief would need authority over these portfolios.
The other longer-term role of providing a strategic perspective to EU foreign policy could be taken on by the EEAS within the current setup. The EU’s diplomatic service could decide to put considerable resources into strategic forecasting and strategy building. Providing national diplomacies and the wider public with knowledge about regional and global developments and the EU’s potential to shape them might make the EEAS more interesting and relevant for the member states.
Defining the EU’s foreign policy role as rather long-term, and the member states’ role as rather short-term, would not end all competition. But a clarification of roles would put an end to the illusion that the EEAS is to the EU what a national diplomatic service is to a state. It would define EU foreign policy as sui generis and specific to the EU’s institutional setup, which lies somewhere between confederation and federation. And clearer roles would enable each side to profit from the strength of the other, ending a competition that is frustrating and damaging for the EU.