I don’t know whether he knows it yet, but Donald Tusk is the European Union’s best hope for an improved foreign policy. If he doesn’t know it yet, someone will have to tell him.

Except, maybe that’s not necessary. It is known that the former Polish prime minister brings foreign policy ambition to his new job as president of the European Council, which gathers EU leaders. Some people say he took the post at least partly because it will give him a chance to place Polish concerns at the center of EU policymaking in times of confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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And yet, it seems counterintuitive to claim that the drive toward a more common foreign policy should come from the office of the European Council president. After all, the main tasks of whoever has that job are to preside over the EU’s most important lawmaking body, to skillfully draft the agendas of council meetings, and to silently and effectively negotiate compromises on countless legislative measures.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in 2009, the European Council was supposed to have less of a role in the institutional mechanics of EU foreign policy. The presidency, which previously rotated among the member states, was abandoned in favor of a more permanent post and a formidable new player, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

But the reality does not live up to the Lisbon Treaty’s aims. EU foreign policy follows at best a case-by-case approach. On rare occasions, such as the negotiations to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program or the reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU member states share an identifiable foreign policy goal and then task the institutions in Brussels with pursuing it.

Outside such infrequent constellations, nobody expects an integrated, fully developed common foreign policy anytime soon. So the big question is whether more of those occasions can be created, so the 28 member countries can speak with one voice a bit more often.

The energy for this effort must come primarily from the member states themselves. But Brussels must play a role as well. Given the EU’s institutional setup, the only place this role can originate from is the European Council. This is for three reasons.

First, there is a trend toward renationalization of external relations. As foreign policy has moved from the fringes of the EU agenda to its center (courtesy of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Eastern Europe, the Syrian civil war, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the fight against the Islamic State, and many other issues), member states have powerfully asserted their prerogative in classic diplomacy and crisis management.

In EU foreign policy, power lies with the member states, not the institutions.
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In times of crisis, responsibility falls where power lies. And in classic foreign policy, resources of power lie with the member states, not with the Brussels-based institutions.

The euro crisis reinforced this trend, as Europe’s economic woes became the golden hour of national governments. During months, even years, of high-intensity intergovernmental crisis management, EU leaders nurtured an executive culture that had a lasting impact. Today, intergovernmental instincts are strengthened across the board, and the erstwhile ambitions that were attached to the EEAS and the new foreign policy system under the Lisbon Treaty have all but vanished.

The place for intergovernmental bargaining among the member states is the European Council. Whoever presides over it becomes the indirect beneficiary of renationalization and has increased influence over the outcomes of this bargaining.

That leverage is thanks not least to the president’s direct access to EU heads of state and government. Neither the European Commission president nor the high representative has similar access to power. If Tusk wants foreign policy influence, his chances of getting it are much better than those of any other institutional leader in the Brussels universe.

Second, the relative weakness of the commission and the EEAS and their structural inability to lead leave plenty of room for maneuver to the European Council president.

The commission, as a collective organ and a mostly technical agency, is unable to exercise real political leadership on foreign policy. This was amply proved during the Ukraine crisis, when the commission was at a loss as soon as the EU’s Eastern Partnership turned from a technical project into a high-stakes geopolitical game.

Furthermore, the commission’s great strength—its technical expertise—has become a disadvantage. In what must be considered a textbook case of path dependency, the commission has become a conservative power, unwilling to really reform its approach and defending the mechanics of the European Neighborhood Policy even after twenty years of program failure. In the debate over a new neighborhood policy, the commission has mostly sent the not very reassuring message of “stay the course.”

Similarly, leadership in foreign policy is unlikely to come from the EEAS. Not because of Federica Mogherini, the high representative, who heads the institution, but because of the structure of the EEAS itself. The service was not designed to be a foreign ministry, and it was certainly never designed to lead EU foreign policy. It was built to coordinate and streamline EU policies.

This is why the EEAS should aspire to be the EU’s functional equivalent to the U.S. National Security Council: a hothouse of strategic analysis and synthesized policy proposals for the executive. If done well, this could lead to an indirect leadership role. But within the Brussels bubble, direct leadership will have to come from elsewhere. Enter Mr. Tusk.

Third, the new foreign policy challenges the EU faces need to be addressed at the highest political level. Ukraine, TTIP, and, potentially, a new European Neighborhood Policy cannot simply be administered by Eurocrats in the commission and the EEAS alone. These dossiers require the permanent attention of elected officials at the upper end of executive power.

@eucopresident Donald #Tusk embodies the last chance for EU foreign policy.
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This politicization of EU policies can only happen in the European Council. If the attention of presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors slips away, the only Brussels player who can bring them back to the table is the council president. Tusk, whether he likes it or not, has to be the guarantor that the EU will never again walk into a geopolitical tug-of-war without being equipped for it.

In sum, the highest hopes for EU external relations lie with the job where one would perhaps least expect it. For many, Donald Tusk embodies the last chance for EU foreign policy. It’s a thankless task. And now, it is his.