Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
There is a difference between who the EU’s next foreign policy chief should be and who it will be.
It should be Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the most experienced and capable foreign minister of the big three EU member states—France, Germany, and the UK. But he feels he can have more influence in Berlin, a sentiment that in itself is a commentary on the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The second-best candidate would be Kristalina Georgieva, the respected European commissioner for humanitarian aid, who would be well placed to bridge the gap between the commission and CFSP. But she has only an outside chance, as her native Bulgaria’s lobbying weight is rather slight.
The two candidates favored by think tankers are Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, widely seen as “too clever by half,” and his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski, who, having already submitted his candidacy, is likely to suffer the fate of most candidates who declare too early. Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister, would have been a good choice, but since Jean-Claude Juncker has been appointed as president of the European Commission, there is unlikely to be another Benelux national in one of the three top jobs (the third being president of the European Council).
So who will be the dark horse? Step forward Federica Mogherini, unheard of until she was appointed Italy’s foreign minister in February 2014. She has limited experience but probably more than Catherine Ashton, the EU’s current foreign policy chief, had when she was appointed. Mogherini is from the center-left, has not upset anyone, and is female, so she ticks a lot of boxes. What’s more, Italy wants the job as it did not get the position of NATO secretary general.
In an ideal world, there would be no successor to Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy high representative—nor to Herman Van Rompuy as president of the European Council. Their powers and influence are so limited that they are more an embarrassment to the EU than a support.
If EU leaders are determined to avoid giving responsibility to first-class political leaders in these jobs, then the posts should be eliminated altogether. If the EU’s heads of state and government could ever bring themselves to accept a real leader, someone such as Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, or former Spanish foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos would fit the bill. Each is a veteran politician and seasoned diplomat who could command respect within the EU and with partners. Equally important is their ministerial experience, which often counts as much as competence in a job such as this.
Double-hatting the EU foreign policy high representative as a vice president of the European Commission was supposed to reduce the divide between traditional foreign policy and the commission’s external relations competencies—trade, development, humanitarian assistance, enlargement, neighborhood policy, and the external dimension of internal policies such as migration or climate change.
However, over the past five years, partly as a result of work overload and partly because of insufficient support from the commission president, Catherine Ashton’s vice president hat has mostly remained in the commission cloakroom. The external relations commissioners have rarely met, and hardly ever under her lead. Thus, a key element of the Lisbon Treaty reforms has never been fully implemented.
In the commission’s next mandate, this needs to change. The next high representative should have great experience in EU external relations. Ashton’s successor should have a strong, decisive personality and a clear mandate from the commission president to effectively lead and coordinate the various commissioners working on external relations.
The EU doesn’t need a 29th foreign minister, but someone who can ensure that the EU’s various assets and instruments are pulled together and deployed in a coherent and effective manner. One personality well qualified for this task would be the current European commissioner for humanitarian aid, Kristalina Georgieva.
The identity of the EU’s next foreign policy chief certainly matters, but only at the margins. Whoever is appointed will be at the mercy of both the EU member states and an institutional system that places many core foreign policy competences outside the high representative’s remit.
Member states, in particular, remain the crucial players. Without their support, the job of the high representative is impossible. The notion that a stronger or more respected figure than the current incumbent would have allowed for more forceful EU foreign policy is unsustainable. Those same member states that tend to clamor for more assertive leadership would be the first to complain if such leadership took them in directions in which they did not want to follow.
In many respects, the high representative is simply a scapegoat for member states’ reluctance to acknowledge their individual weaknesses and to work together to achieve objectives they cannot secure acting alone. The primary qualification for the post, therefore, is a thick skin.
Predicting who will be the next EU foreign policy high representative is a shot in the dark. Foreign policy pundits want a strong, strategic, influential arm-twister, but this rare bird is unlikely to be selected.
The holder of the office may eventually embody some of those qualities. Indeed, the names emerging, such as Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Kristalina Georgieva, or Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Assemblée nationale Elisabeth Guigou, all have some of those qualities.
But let’s not forget a few fundamental questions. Why would any major European country want this position and not another more influential portfolio, one that could be more beneficial for its own interests? Is the EU ready for a strong high representative? Are the EU’s structures solid enough and its system tested enough to sustain such a figurehead? And are EU member states sufficiently amenable?
People matter, but institutions, interinstitutional cooperation, and processes matter more to produce outcomes and implement long-term vision. A strong high representative could become frustrated with the EU’s still-fragile system or, worse, cause that system to implode. It may be better for now to consolidate the existing setup instead of trying to reach for the stars.
There are two ways to answer this question: by considering the Lisbon Treaty’s formal objectives or by pursuing a “grand bargain” approach.
If one follows the formal route, EU leaders should be looking for a seasoned figure who will bring a wealth of foreign policy experience and a very large address book to the headquarters of the European External Action Service. Under this hypothesis, names such as Carl Bildt, the current foreign minister and a former prime minister of Sweden, or Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, would undoubtedly be front-runners for the job.
But experience has shown that nominations to the EU’s top jobs are in fact the result of major horse-trading. Appointing Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission was complicated enough, to say the least. After he is confirmed by the European Parliament in mid-July, the next round of nominations will deal with the president of the European Council, the president of the European Parliament, and the foreign policy high representative.
By the time considerations of nationality, political affiliation, and gender are factored in, there will be no guarantee that the EU’s next foreign policy chief will be the experienced figure that everybody has been advocating. But maybe, this time around, EU leaders will understand that no one—and that includes the big three member states of France, Germany, and the UK—would be well served by a little-known, little-respected, inexperienced foreign policy chief.
Carl Bildt, Josckha Fischer, Emma Bonino, Radek Sikorski, Anna Ascani, Chris Patten, Dominique Moïsi, or Ian Buruma.
This list includes a Swedish foreign affairs minister, a former German one, a former Italian one who’s also a former European commissioner, a crusty Polish politician, a young Italian parliamentarian, an old British wise man, a savvy French maître à penser, and one of the very few European global thinkers.
I know some of these names will never make it to the boring short list the EU will eventually compile. Too bad. But in his speech to launch his country’s six-month presidency of the EU Council, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called for a new, bold approach. To appoint a clone of the hapless Catherine Ashton as the EU’s next foreign policy chief would be to ignore his plea.
EU foreign policy is an experiment: Can European nation-states agree on fundamental issues like their relationship with powerful states such as Russia and China or their view of conflicts in the Middle East? And are they ready to at least partly accept that their foreign policy resources are being put at the service of institutions they have set up together?
So far, the result has been rather disappointing. The new foreign policy infrastructure that was created by the Lisbon Treaty and that came to life in 2009–2010—a diplomatic service, the European External Action Service, headed by a high representative—has not played a major role in shaping the foreign policies of EU member states.
The big question is whether a stronger high representative could change that, or whether the obstacles are structural and can’t be overcome under the current arrangements. To what extent are past failures a consequence of the nomination of Catherine Ashton, a high representative who had little foreign policy experience? And could someone with a different track record reinvent EU foreign policy and bring it closer to the original expectations of a common foreign policy that is more than the sum of its parts?
If EU leaders chose a strong candidate—Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski or Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, for example—Europe will have an answer to that question in the next few years. If not, there’ll be more disenchantment.
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