The locomotive of the European Union’s nascent diplomatic corps has been picking up speed, with a ribbon-cutting at the service’s new Washington site on Sep. 29th, and officials in Brussels promising it will be ready to roll before the planned start of December 1st. But critics on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed major doubts as to whether the world can expect an EU foreign agency that can chug its weight.
Created after the landmark Treaty of Lisbon in December 2009, the European External Action Service (EEAS) will seek to unify the EU’s voice in world diplomatic affairs. Its chief architect, Lady Catherine Ashton, sits as the EU foreign affairs chief and one of several vice presidents of the European Commission. Another key figure is João Vale de Almeida, the EU ambassador to the United States, who has been promoting a strongly optimistic view on the EEAS starting off well this winter.
EU Officials: New Service? No Problem
The EU’s new service will offer a “a more reliable, more credible, and a more results-oriented partner” to the United States, Almeida pledged in a September interview with Washington’s The Hill newspaper. A Portuguese national and longtime deputy to European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, Almeida arrived in Washington in July amid talk of a “wider mandate” for his ambassadorship.
“My ambition is to move beyond what exists today, to build a stronger and even more positive EU-US agenda with solid bilateral and global pillars,” Almeida said in an August press release, before presenting his credentials at the White House. He promised “an agenda that unlocks the full potential of our economies, promotes joint action in foreign policy, and enhances our capacity as global partners."
Almeida’s words obliquely addressed critics’ concerns about the EU’s readiness to operate a new diplomatic structure—and a big one at that. As a branch of the Brussels-based European Commission, the EEAS will comprise 8,000 officials, with 800 more EU diplomats dispersed among the agency’s 136 foreign embassies. On budget, the latest estimates from the Devex newswire put the EEAS’ funds at $620 million. (...)
Others have predicted gridlock over national vs. federal diplomatic policy. As plans stand now, single-country embassies of EU members will continue to function at the same time as those of the EEAS and, ostensibly, work out overlaps and contradictory leadership signals on the fly.
The national-federal fight has characterized the EU integration process from its inception, with committed nationalists like Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher clawing back at the bloc’s strides toward unification. Even today, the EU’s white-hot controversy over the French Roma expulsion has pitted France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy against EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding. In September she summoned a charge from EU leaders to condemn Sarkozy’s actions, to which France’s Europe minister responded, “this is not how you speak to a major power like France.”
Reding has threatened legal action over the issue. If Reding actually does take the French government to court, the verdict may act as a historic fork in the European road—either ruling that national policies are inferior to federal European interests, or favoring countries against the Brussels bureaucratic machine. Either outcome will affect the EEAS and its diplomatic gravitas abroad.
The View from Outside
Outside the EU’s official sphere, observers’ commentary juxtaposes black-and-white contrast to the rosy picture promised by Almeida. A scan of U.S. media shows little belief in Europe’s new project, or that the EU might survive at all, plagued as it is with mountainous debt and turmoil stemming from the economic crisis. “The European Union is dying,” wrote Charles Kupchan last month, senior Europe expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. The New York Times lamented in March that Europeans had to “promise relevance” in their overtures to the Obama White House, echoing complaints from throughout Europe that the U.S. president has demoted the Old Continent in favor of China, the Middle East and other more demanding global hotspots.
Many Europeans have voiced doubts on the EEAS, in theory their own service acting to promote their own interests. The Spanish newspaper El País has already written it off as a “toothless colossus.” Roger Cohen, the International Herald Tribune columnist and a Briton, declared in early September that “Europe is history.” Regardless of whether the service delivers, Cohen writes, the bloc it represents “has become a strategic backwater.”
A report from Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation candidly titled “External Action Service: Much Ado About Nothing” argues the Euro-pessimism case in greater depth, giving three reasons the foreign corps will not make its global mark: 1) conflicting leadership, 2) national interests, and 3) power-hoarding by the Commission and the European Council.
On leadership, though Almeida technically takes orders from Ashton, his allegiances will be scrutinized if he is suspected of playing right-hand man to Barroso, who still heads the Commission and to whom Almeida owes a big debt for his career’s good fortunes. An initial plan proposing a powerful secretary-general under Ashton was scrapped to create one secretary-general with two similarly powerful deputy secretary-generals just below him or her, which could cause problems of its own if a strict respect is not paid to the still-new chain of command.
Concerning national interests, each of the EU’s “Big Three” powers – France, Germany and Britain –has its own ideas about how to steer an EU-wide foreign policy tool. France’s center-right government leans toward nationally-minded policy, or at least a federal EU policy that leaves French policy a lot of room to maneuver. Germany, even decades after Hitler’s legacy of atrocity from World War II, bears a historical consciousness that flees wildly from any notion it might jump to the helm of an all-Europe security agenda. As for Britain, the Bertelsmann report says it best:
“In the United Kingdon the EEAS, as might have been expected, has few supporters. The British had already made it clear in the [Treaty of] Lisbon negotiations that they are not prepared to make the slightest concessions with regard to their sovereignty as it pertains to foreign, security and defense policy questions. In view of their own […] possibilities, they saw the EEAS as an opportunity on the one hand to save money, and on the other to be able to continue to exert influence in the future.”
The power-hoarding by established EU institutions like the Commission and Parliament can be reasonably predicted to hinder the EEAS’ assumption of power. Even in the service’s planning stages over the course of the last year, the two bodies argued vociferously over who would keep or forfeit which powers to launch a stand-alone foreign affairs structure.
The outcome is unwieldy and confusing: the European Parliament controls the EEAS’ budget, but the service will remain under the purview of the Commission. The portfolio of neighborhood policy, which addresses Europe’s ex-Soviet neighbors, is a logical fit within the EEAS—but will remain separate from it at the Commission. Questions have arisen over whether Ashton herself is fit to pioneer the agency, when some have labeled her a “compromise candidate” seen as a non-threat to the power-sharing status quo at the Commission and the European Parliament.
Some do offer a more silver-lined reading of the EEAS’ potential heft. In an article from the online journal E!Sharp, William Kennard, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, believes that the new corps will “extend the EU’s influence around the world in a much more effective way.” Justin Vaïsse, a Brookings Institution expert and French national, has allowed that U.S. diplomats are “more likely to feel the change when they are sent abroad” outside the European sphere, especially as EU member states with smaller budgets begin to channel their funds and staff to the embassies under the EU banner. He also observes that, Obama aside, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has shown consistent favor to Ashton, which could smooth the EEAS’ first dealings with the U.S. in the coming months.
But Vaïsse hastens to note that the effectiveness of the new service hinges not on its own capacity, but the respect it is given by foreign governments. Nowhere is this truer than in Washington.
“At the end of the day… the overall impact of the Lisbon Treaty changes will depend on the level of interest the White House grants to Europeans. If the scant interest President Barack Obama has shown in Europe remains the same, there is little chance that a virtuous circle will kick in, despite Europe’s best efforts.”
If current circumstances are any sign of future capability, the EEAS should be in for a bumpy start. When Ashton announced the appointments of 29 senior posts in late September, her choices were roundly condemned among the European Parliament. The members complained of a severe imbalance both on gender and on geographical diversity – two prime values of the EU community – and claimed Ashton broke earlier promises of both. Only seven of the 29 appointees are women, and only four states that joined the EU after its single-biggest enlargement in 2004 are represented. This means that the bloc’s newer, largely Eastern members could suffer from systemic under-representation on Europe’s diplomatic totem pole.
Since Ashton’s announcement, Parliament members have moved to create a legally binding mechanism to guarantee gender and member-state diversity in appointments, which could delay the service’s launch past December 1.
The EEAS has a lot to prove this winter. Its friends in Washington and around the world may be ready for partnership, but only once the EU shows its diplomatic engine can arrive on time—and get rolling.