The Fragmentation of EU External Action

Foreign policy in a globalized world requires a comprehensive approach to challenges that range from climate change, cybersecurity, and natural resource access to migration flows and state failure. A successful international actor needs to integrate various foreign policy instruments into well-coordinated external action. In spite of sometimes claiming the contrary, the EU has great difficulty living up to this ambition.

European foreign policy in a broad sense of the term has three components: the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), member states’ individual foreign policies, and the external action led by the European Commission.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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The CFSP is ostensibly the focal point of EU foreign policy, yet its mandate is limited to traditional bilateral and multilateral diplomacy and crisis management. Structurally, the CFSP has more in common with a conventional intergovernmental organization like the Council of Europe than with the core areas of EU integration. The Council of Ministers takes the lead, decisions are made by unanimity, and the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice play a very limited role.

In establishing this common policy, member states did not transfer competences to Brussels—they merely committed to pursuing certain objectives together while continuing to run their own national foreign policies in parallel. Member states are bound to solidarity, but as the CFSP is ruled by unanimity, they are essentially free to determine the ambition and the substance of their national foreign policies.

The Commission oversees the EU’s external action efforts, which are in part related to internal integration. An internal market requires a common policy on trade, international norms and standards, environmental policies, and other matters. A common area of border-free travel calls for common policies on visa and migration. In addition, the EU has established important and well-funded programs concerning enlargement, neighborhood policy, and development. 

The EU’s external relations expenditures amount to over €12 billion a year. Funding for the CFSP—at about €400 million—constitutes only a small fraction of that budget.

This fragmentation of policies lies at the heart of the EU’s weakness as an international player. Both the outside world and many European citizens expect an international performance that is commensurate with the EU’s overall relevance and weight. The CFSP claims to lead on EU foreign policy, yet, in view of its limited mandate and its intergovernmental structure, it is really the weakest link in the chain of EU activities and therefore frequently unable to live up to these expectations. Its structural inability to deliver on the objectives outlined in the treaty is its greatest handicap and undermines the EU’s standing in the world.

In order to become a credible global actor, the EU needs to overcome this fragmentation and bring its various instruments and assets together in a coherent fashion. It needs to build a more comprehensive approach to foreign policy.

The Lisbon Record So Far

Foreign policy structures that were created by the Lisbon Treaty and launched in 2010 represent the latest attempt to grapple with the EU’s foreign policy fragmentation problem. With member states unprepared to transfer foreign policy competences to the European level, the treaty upgraded the position of high representative (currently held by Catherine Ashton) and established the European External Action Service (EEAS) in an attempt to create a stronger operational center with enhanced policy instruments.

The Lisbon reforms locked the various dimensions of external relations together in a new institutional structure designed to enforce greater coordination and coherence. One key element of this was the assignment of multiple roles to the high representative—the job combines the high representative’s traditional functions with those of a European Commission vice president. The idea was that a personal union of these key functions would ensure effective coordination between the different dimensions of EU foreign policy. The high representative also assumed the role of president of the Foreign Affairs Council, replacing the foreign minister of the country holding the EU’s rotating presidency. This was meant to ensure the greater continuity necessary for sustained engagement with third countries.

The high representative also heads the EU’s new collective diplomatic service, which encompasses more than 140 delegations in third countries. Combining staff from EU institutions with staff from the member states, it was also designed to bring the different elements of European foreign policy closer together.

Altogether, the Lisbon reforms envisaged the high representative/vice president and the EEAS as powerful ways to integrate the CFSP, member states’ policies, and the external competences led by the Commission to enable the EU to finally develop a coherent and comprehensive approach to foreign policy. 

Today, two years after the EEAS became operational, the record is uneven.

In some areas the new system has proven its worth. Greater continuity has allowed the high representative and her top management to build stronger relations both with their counterparts in the member states and with interlocutors in third countries. And in some areas—such as talks on the Iranian nuclear program, the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, and Horn of Africa issues—the high representative has assumed an important leadership role. 

Crisis platforms were established to bring together the relevant EEAS and Commission services and that has enabled the high representative to improve the EU’s approach to crisis management. Today, when the EU confronts lawlessness in Somalia or terrorist threats in Mali, the services responsible for political crisis management, military security, humanitarian assistance, and development are all engaged from the start. Task forces were set up for Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt and are open to member states, financial institutions, and the private sector. These are promising signs that the EU will be able to better support countries undergoing transition. Summits with strategic partners are now prepared in a more inclusive and efficient manner, and the alignment of the Commission’s and EEAS’s approaches to European Neighborhood Policy has generally worked out well.

Less evident is progress relating to development, trade, energy, the environment, migration, and other global issues. In these areas, the Commission has from the outset taken a restrictive approach, protecting its own competences and minimizing the coordination functions of the EEAS. 

The prevailing mindset in the Commission clearly remains to keep development well separated from politics, so it is too early to assess whether the limited role the EEAS has been given in programming the EU’s development instruments will make any difference. But the Commission’s stance appears increasingly hard to justify in view of the changing paradigms of development policy. In recent years it has become universally recognized that good governance is a central objective of development policy. As this is inherently a political goal, the traditional separation between development and politics hardly appears tenable any longer.

In trying to play a part in coordinating the external competences of the Commission, the EEAS runs into the opposition of many managers in the Commission who tend to see the EEAS as some sort of intergovernmental Trojan horse designed to undermine the Commission’s autonomy. But such a perception is based on a mistaken interpretation of what the new service is meant to do. The EEAS should not be seen as something extraneous to the Commission but rather as a joint instrument of both the Council and the Commission, whose very purpose is to bridge the gap between classical foreign policy and external relations.

The Lisbon Treaty’s ambition to achieve a closer alignment between EU and member states’ policies also remains largely unfulfilled. The high representative and the EEAS can hardly be blamed for this. The new institutional arrangements and, in particular, the greater continuity of the key actors have certainly allowed the EU’s foreign policy machinery to run more smoothly than in the past.

However, these gains in effectiveness were outweighed by the adverse effects of the EU’s current deep crisis. Internal problems distracted the EU from foreign policy challenges; reduced its soft power, confidence, and resources; and weakened solidarity among member states. In some areas there has even been a creeping renationalization of foreign policy—a tendency of member states to adopt national positions without coordinating with their partners and to impose national agendas on EU policies. As EU and national foreign policy run in parallel, it is all too easy for member states to simply shift the emphasis back to national policy when the common project appears to be in trouble.

The Importance of the 2013 Review

While the euro crisis is not yet resolved, financial markets have calmed down and there is still a good chance that the EU will move into calmer waters in 2013. In view of the developments in northern Africa and the Middle East, foreign and security policy is likely to move up on the agenda and, with it, the need to exploit the potential of the Lisbon reforms more fully.

According to the European Council decision that created the EEAS, the high representative must provide a review of the organization by mid-2013. That review comes at the right moment. It should allow for a full analysis of the present situation, address the shortcomings, and prepare the ground for a dynamic development of the service. Promoting the EEAS’s role in achieving greater coordination, complementarity, and cohesion of the EU’s various foreign policy instruments and assets should be at the heart of the review.

The EEAS still has a rather weak institutional identity. At times it looks like a secretariat for CFSP meetings. On other occasions it behaves like an emerging 28th foreign ministry, while in some administrative and financial respects it seems to be not much more than an appendix of the Commission. 

It is understandable that a new institution with a heterogeneous composition of EU officials and diplomats needs time to develop a coherent culture and find its place in the institutional jungle of Brussels. But it is also true that some of the arrangements put in place by the 2010 decision and the way they were implemented have contributed to the confusion. The 2013 review should help clarify matters and promote a sense of common purpose. 

The EEAS’s real value lies in serving as a platform for effective coordination among its core stakeholders—the member states and the European Commission. A standalone EEAS would be doomed to marginalization.

The two aspects of this project—promoting a stronger sense of ownership over EU foreign policy among member states and encouraging more intensive engagement of the Commission—are not easily reconciled. An EEAS that engages the member states in genuine teamwork might raise even greater fears of intergovernmental contagion in the Commission. Conversely, greater Commission ownership of the new service might trigger suspicions in some member states. There is no alternative, however, to pursuing both objectives in parallel. It is to be hoped that over time the practice of cooperation will overcome prejudices and turf battles and lead to a culture of genuine team effort.

What the EU Needs to Do, in Concrete Terms

There are number of key issues that the upcoming review should address in order to build a more comprehensive EU foreign policy. 

Promoting a comprehensive approach requires systematic cooperation and coordination between the high representative and the various commissioners dealing with external relations (trade, enlargement, development, and so on). At present, these officials rarely meet and never under the chairmanship of the high representative. The review should allow the high representative to fully assume this coordinating function. 

For this, Ashton will need the strong and consistent support of the president of the Commission, which has not yet been forthcoming. As the multihatted high representative is seriously overburdened, she will need a deputy to assist her in these tasks. 

The EEAS’s coordinating role is also hindered by a lack of expertise in many areas in which the EU has a comparative advantage as an international actor, such as energy or environmental policies. That is because EEAS resources are still primarily devoted not to these areas but to supporting traditional foreign and security policy.

Over the coming years, a rebalancing toward playing a stronger role in the nontraditional aspects of external relations is in order. Initially, the EEAS should build greater capacity in priority areas, such as energy, the environment, development, justice, and home affairs. With member states retaining important competences in many of these areas, the EEAS could become a platform for coordination among all major stakeholders. 

To strengthen the coherence of the CFSP and external relations and promote a culture of cooperation, the EEAS and the Commission could also work together more frequently on papers. This practice—already used to good effect in some areas—should become the normal way to provide input and orientation for EU foreign policy. Particularly useful are regional strategy papers, such as those concerning the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, which are based on a comprehensive analysis of a situation and encompass all relevant aspects of the EU’s external policies.

In large part, the integration of EU and member states’ policies needs to be strengthened locally. The EU delegations around the world are by their very nature well suited to promote a comprehensive approach. Traditionally responsible for trade, aid, and treaty relationships, the delegations have also assumed responsibility for the EU’s political relations with their host countries. Additionally, EU ambassadors chair the meetings of the heads of member states’ missions and so are well placed to act as overall coordinators of EU and member states’ efforts in third countries.

Unfortunately, the present makeup of the delegations reflects the same divisions that characterize relations between the EEAS and the Commission in Brussels, which makes this task rather difficult. The delegations include staff from the EEAS (usually the head of the delegation, the deputy, and the political unit) and from the Commission. Each staff has different lines of communication with Brussels, administrative rules, and financial responsibilities. It should be a priority for the EEAS review to make sure that the delegations can work in an integrated and efficient manner and that their full potential can be exploited.

The delegations can also play a crucial role in promoting genuine teamwork between the EU and the member states. The review should encourage a much more systematic exchange of information as well as joint-reporting and burden-sharing arrangements between the delegations and member states’ embassies. At a time when both the EU budget and national budgets are under severe constraints, there are great synergies to be gained by linking the efforts of EU and national diplomats. 

The EU missions can be important service providers, particularly for countries not represented in a given country. But member states’ diplomatic missions should also be more strongly engaged as part of a single EU team in host countries. Such cooperation would be facilitated by harmonized communication systems and shared infrastructure as well as co-location arrangements. In order to exploit this potential more fully, it would be worthwhile to conduct an in-depth study on “pooling and sharing in diplomacy” involving the member states’ administrations and EU institutions.

On the Brussels level, the high representative could—to a greater extent than she does now—task individual ministers or groups of ministers to undertake missions on her behalf or even take the lead in developing policy in certain areas. As many ministers would appreciate assuming such European functions, this would provide additional sources of expertise and resources and strengthen the sense of ownership among member states.

It would also improve overall coordination between the EEAS, Commission, and member states if the Political and Security Committee, the EEAS’s primary interlocutor on behalf of the member states, had a broader mandate enabling it to deal with all aspects of external relations. Currently the committee’s role is limited to traditional foreign and security policy, whereas the geographic working groups operating under it already have a comprehensive mandate. 

Member states’ diplomats like to characterize the relationship between their foreign ministries and the EEAS as “complementary,” and it is of course true that the new service is not meant to replace national diplomacies. But it would be a grave mistake to conceive “complementarity” as a division of labor in which national diplomacies take care of the interests of their respective states and the EEAS takes charge of common EU interests. 

Certainly, the foreign services need to handle the direct national interests of member states, but they also continue to have a crucial role in supporting the EU’s common interests. EU foreign policy can only be effective to the extent that it is effectively backed up by the influence and resources of the member states.

For the foreseeable future the EEAS will lack the authority and the resources to play a meaningful role on its own. The EEAS should therefore serve as the central hub where the collective efforts of the member states and the relevant EU institutions are brought together and get organized.

Recommitting to the Mission

Overcoming the divisions and rivalries that currently bedevil the EU’s external action is less a matter of changing legislation than of changing mindsets and the prevailing institutional culture. Some amendments to the EEAS’s founding principles and to the financial regulations governing EU foreign policy are certainly necessary to give the service more coherence and financial autonomy. However, the main thrust of the upcoming review should be directed at obtaining a recommitment of the main stakeholders to making the Lisbon system really work.

Because of the internal crises the EU faced during the first two years of the EEAS’s existence, the new service got off to a tough start. But it has shown promise and brought real improvements in the way EU foreign policy is conducted. Now is the time to unlock the full potential of the Lisbon reforms to ensure the unity, consistency, and effectiveness of the EU’s external action.