In last week’s blog post I lamented Europeans’ overall lack of ambition to finally turn the European Union into an aspiring and credible foreign policy player. On the same day, the 11 foreign ministers of the “Future of Europe Group” published their much-commented final report, outlining ideas on how to develop the EU’s integration process. While this report is certainly useful for stimulating the debate about “political union”, I could not help but feel fully confirmed in my foreign policy pessimism. Here, the report is a huge disappointment. That’s not because the ideas themselves are all old news. It’s because the paper shows that the foreign ministers, who really should know better, still have not learned a most crucial lesson from more than 20 years of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy: an EU common foreign policy will never be made by the Monnet method.
The paper’s approach to strengthening EU foreign policy reveals classic conventional integration thinking: first, you create a set of procedures, instruments, and institutions in a given policy field. Then you slowly feed a few real-life policy problems into this new machinery so it can start working. Finally you hope that the machinery will create its own momentum, sucking ever more, and ever bigger issues into the apparatus, thereby, slowly but surely, widening and deepening the integration process on its path towards ever closer union.
This was the technocratic approach Jean Monnet suggested in the 1950s, and it has proven to be a forceful driver for the hugely successful integration process that has served all of Europe so well. However, the dirty little secret of this integration procedure is that the Monnet method works very well in policy fields in which political disputes can be monetized. Or, to put it more bluntly, in which political compromise can be bought. It does not work very well in areas that touch upon the core elements of national sovereignty, such as foreign, security, and defense policy. Because these are difficult, if not impossible, to monetize.
This does not mean, of course, that foreign policy, by definition, could never be more closely integrated in the EU than it is now. It only means that it can never be integrated by creating institutions first and getting political later. Which is exactly what the Maastricht, Nice, and Lisbon Treaties have been trying to do. And which is exactly what the foreign ministers have tried again in their final report last week. In foreign policy, it takes much more than the Monnet method to bring about a common approach. You have to be political right from the start. You can’t delegate the creation of political will to bureaucrats and lawyers. Instead, the leaders must bring it to the table before any kind of process can start.
After 20 years of trying to build CFSP with rather sobering results, it should have been clear that yet another dose of the same old ointment would not do the trick. But because there is neither a shared view of the world among the 11 foreign ministers—let alone among all 27 member states—nor a shared ambition, and certainly not a set of clearly defined shared interests, they had to revert back to the leaderless approach of the Monnet method. Their concrete suggestions prove the futility of the exercise: strengthening the position of the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy; majority voting on CFSP in the Council; maybe a European Army at some point; overall more cohesion and coordination. All of these are truly wonderful ideas. The problem is that even if we had all of that, it still would not give us an EU foreign policy. Because policy starts with shared ambitions and interests, not with procedural improvements. Or, to put it the other way around: we actually don’t need any of these things because if we really wanted to have a common foreign policy in the EU, we could have had it for a long time, regardless of what institutions exist and whether they work.
In reality, foreign policy in the EU is not under-institutionalized, it’s over-institutionalized. The treaties give all legal options for more concerted efforts of the EU-27, but these rules have never really been invoked. There are well-filled war chests in the various external relations portfolios of the Commission, but the EU fails to break out of its established ways of foreign policy by project management. A European External Action Service (EEAS) with thousands of highly qualified diplomats, analysts, and operators has been created, but it has never been given proper direction or work by the member states. As a result it remains in a state of dysfunctional stand-by, with very little tangible output, and scores of highly frustrated foreign policy practitioners looking for a way out.
As popular as condemning the EEAS is at the moment, the service itself cannot really be blamed for this state of affairs. It is the member states who have created an instrument that they now refuse to use. Not primarily because they distrust Brussels—even though that plays a role as well—but because they just don’t want a common foreign policy for the EU. There is simply no ambition for it. The 11 foreign ministers’ final report is further proof of this. If this was only about the unwillingness to use an ill-conceived new instrument, not much would be lost. If it was only about lingering doubts about Brussels’ Eurocrat elites, the damage would be equally minute. But, as I pointed out in last week’s column, the real problem is that there is no aspiration in general on behalf of Europeans to look at the world as a place they can and must shape to make it a better place, and to make it a place that best serves our enlightened self-interest. This lack of a will to make a difference is worrisome, because it is, in the end, a lack of a will to survive.
So what could the 11 foreign ministers have done instead of re-stating the pointless? It would have really been revolutionary had they come out with a policy paper that identified a maximum of three prioritized and tangible foreign policy objectives, shared by all of them. Accompanied by an agreed plan of concerted steps to pursue these interests over an identified period of time. In short: they should have presented a strategy for EU foreign policy. Such a declaration of political will and determination could have changed the debate in dramatic ways. It would have brought the political back to a world of stale and useless procedural and institutional haggling. Unfortunately, the ministers did not have the daring to do so.
Maybe Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, who has recently made it his habit to speak the truth to his political peers and partners under difficult circumstances, could come to the rescue. Because it’s not only German inactivity or Britain’s "false consciousness" that are to blame for the EU’s foreign policy malaise. All of Europe is to be blamed for the shameful performance of the EU as a player in the world. Sikorski himself was part of the Future of Europe Group, and it is hard to imagine how he can possibly have been happy with the group’s output. Give us another great speech, Radek! Make it one on strategy this time! The Munich Security conference is only a few months down the road.