EU’s External Action Service: options remain open

This past week the EU High Representative Catherine Ashton presented “her” proposal for the new European External Action Service (quotation marks on “her” because, of course, it is not hers alone – even in draft it is already a compromise). So far she has not won all her battles but nor has she lost them. In fact, those battles are not over. All options are open still and those of us who want a genuine Action service need to keep our sleeves rolled up and engage in the arguments ahead.

Stakes – the long game

What is at stake here is a once-only opportunity to create something different from the norm of foreign ministries handling a myriad details of the relationship of one government to a couple of hundred others. Extending that model to the EU and creating a supra-ministry of European foreign affairs is pointless, probably impossible, and distinctly counter-productive.

  • Pointless because there’s no need for another foreign ministry.
  • Probably impossible because the EU’s member states won’t let it happen.
  • And counter productive because the High Rep, foreign ministers and heads of government would spend their time tripping over each other’s feet as they competed for profile and coverage on the big headline issues.

Instead, the EAS should be designed to deal with some big, 21st century, long-range issues – a broad concept of security, the international politics of climate change and coming to a new and equitable agreement on world trade. On these issues the EAS has the potential to offer something distinctly different, playing a well-prepared long game, providing intellectual muscle and policy stamina on complex issues in which politicians’ instinct to keep launching new initiatives can be useful but won’t be the real driver of a progressive agenda.

A view from outside the vortex

Baroness Ashton’s proposal is the outcome of intensive discussion and not a little lobbying over the past couple of months. The proposal is framed as a resolution, using formal language, and does not contain the supporting arguments for the choices embedded in it. There is a 30 April deadline for finalising and taking the decision.

Those who are closer than I am to the Brussels vortex of code, gossip and personalities may see it differently but to my eyes, the general nature of some of the key passages in the draft decision about who is responsible for what has both the intention and the effect of keeping options open. The argument is going to carry on. That is part of the structure of the eventual decision, with a report from the High Rep due in 2012 and a review of the EAS’s functioning in 2014. But perhaps more importantly it is an implication of the drafting, which has left many issues vague.

I am doubtless blind to nuances of the bureaucratic drafting process, but to me it looks as if in the tussles so far that have led to this draft, Catherine Ashton has successfully gained budgetary independence from the Commission. The draft seems to reflect a vision of the EAS that is closer to the Lisbon Treaty’s original concept of a service that would coordinate the EU’s relationship with the world than it is to some of the narrower versions that have been aired, focused purely on providing diplomatic support to the High Representative and other senior officials. The EAS in this proposal

  • would have a somewhat confusing double function, because it is there to support the High Rep but also assist the Commission President (Jose Manuel Barroso), the Commission itself and the President of the European Council (Herman van Rompuy) – and words like “support” and “assist” can have a zillion different disputable meanings in the right hands;
  • would be staffed on merit but also so as to be geographically representative of the EU – a balance that is another arena for contestation;
  • will get plenty of policy control over security but it is unclear how much it is going to have over other foreign policy areas including development assistance;
  • will have thematic as well as geographical desks, which is fundamental.

Muddy and muddier

The relatively brief formulation in the Lisbon Treaty offered what looks now like a pretty strong version of the EAS. The proposal Catherine Ashton has now presented is also a fairly strong version, weaker than the way many interpreted the Lisbon Treaty but not far removed from it.

Against that, different forces – some foreign ministries, parts of the European Commission, some MEPs, some important NGOs – have wanted a weak and even muddier version with little or no leadership on key components of external relations, and in the view of some of the development NGOs, none at all on development assistance. 

There are random alliances among the forces of greater muddiness but they have not and will not come together as a coalition. The preferences and underlying interests of some of these diverse opponents of the strong version are quite different and often at odds with each other. All they share is a preference for a weak EAS – and some of them wouldn’t mind a strong-ish version if they thought their own hands would be on the tiller.

In the midst of all this, keeping options open through some studied vagueness seems to me to be the right way to go. The difficult trick is to have only a moderate amount of vagueness and progressively to replace that with clarity as the issues move along – to dispel the mud and get the EAS into clean water for its launch. If Catherine Ashton can get her proposal through pretty much intact, she will be in a stronger position for keeping to a stronger version of the EAS in the long term.

Three targets for clarity

A group of NGOs and think tanks wrote an open letter criticising the state of debate on the EAS. The letter, dated 22 March, comes from E3G, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Centre for European Reform, demosEuropa, East-West Institute, Global Witness, IDDRI, International Alert, International Crisis Group and Open Society Institute. It says Brussels turf wars are undermining the prospects for the EAS and outlines three areas to focus on:

  1. Strategic Policy Coherence: As the actual shape of the EAS is elaborated and refined – as the desks are defined – it is crucial that the High Rep can ensure consistency across all the areas of the EU’s external relations. Keeping the policy areas in separate silos will make it impossible to have coherent policy either on the issues themselves or to shape relations with China, or the US, Russia, India or anybody else. To this end, the EAS has to be the vehicle that provides strategic coordination of big programming commitments such as development assistance.
  2. Staff expertise: There has been a strong push to recruit the EAS only from foreign ministries and the Commission. This has opened up a little in the current draft proposal. If the EAS is constituted only by diplomats, it will probably act as a diplomatic service, locked in the policies and the processes of institutions whose DNA belongs to 19th and 20th century. It will not be able to offer something that is distinctively different to meet the distinctive challenges of our age. 
  3. Addressing critical priorities: The EAS has to be empowered – with formal mandates if necessary – to generate policy and lead action on core relationships and in key areas such as climate change, energy, peacebuilding, the Neighbourhood Policy.


How this pans out now is partly in the hands of the member states of the EU. They should get on board. The turf and functions of the foreign ministries are not threatened by an EAS that takes on the long game on the key issues. They are only threatened if the EAS is shaped like a traditional diplomatic service. In other words, the narrowness of their view risks creating the beast they fear.  They should cut through the murk and start supporting the strong version of the EAS and stop undermining the High Rep.

The outcome is also partly in the hands of the EU institutions – both the Parliament and the Commission. The Parliament is rightly concerned with its prerogatives and maiking sure the High Rep and the EAS are answerable to it. But MEPs should not worry about micro-managing the EAS, its administrative set-up and its budget, and instead focus onto the broad objectives and how to miss them.

And the Commission has to recognise at all levels that when the Lisbon Treaty became law, a new era has begun in the EU’s affairs. Bureaucratic resistance to change and an enthusiastic engagement in turf wars are fighting anachronistic wars. For the parts of the Commission that are resisting the strong version of the EAS put themselves in a lose-lose position: even if they win the short-term bureaucratic battle and see off the change, they will actually have won nothing in the medium and longer term because they will have created nothing. Their “victory” will leave the Commission as a damaged structure of diminishing credibility.

Embracing the change is the only worthwhile option in front of the Commission and it has to be hoped that its leadership will act on that basis.

One thought on “EU’s External Action Service: options remain open

  1. Pingback: Who will be Cathy Ashton’s Sir Humphrey? » Spectator Blogs

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