The EAS: what it takes to succeed

Just before the summer shutdown, the last key decisions were taken to establish the EU’s new External Action Service – the European Parliament on 8 July and the Council of the EU on the 20th. As the EAS starts to become real, what can and should we expect from it?

TAKING shape

A fully functioning service is still some months off – some time around the Christmas break seems a reasonable bet – and until EU High Representative will still be performing under the double handicap of under-staffing and over-expectancy. But a glance at the EAS web-site shows plenty of diplomatic action, behind which things are now warming up in the selection and distribution of the main jobs. 

It looks like the core decisions have been taken about the organisational shape though there are probably more to come. There’s an organigramme doing the rounds in cyber space (but it’s not linkable and I’m not techno-smart enough to be able to include it here – sorry). It’s labelled “illustrative only,” whatever that may mean (after all, organisational charts are by definition only illustrative) and “High Representative’s Draft.”

It has both strengths and problems – hardly surprising since it’s the result of compromises between many different competing forces.

The chart shows five main regional directorates and a thematic directorate; units for crisis management and peacebuilding are organisationally separate, located under the Situation Centre with a direct line to and from the High Representative.

Some of the peacebuilding NGOs are especially pleased about this, because peacebuilding has been protected as a separate and identifiable area of work. That’s positive but I am not so sure as yet that it is particularly important. Other features are more significant – both those that are worrisome and those that are encouraging.

THE DOWN SIDE: Just a new MFA?

To my eyes, the organisational chart shows what looks pretty much like a regular ministry of foreign affairs, as I feared it would be and argued against in earlier blogs.

The reason for concern about this is partly that the birth of the EAS has been an opportunity to create a new kind of external service for the new era we are entering. This is an age of

  • diffused and shifting power, changing assumptions about who can get what done,  with uncertain international coalitions of interest and opportunity,
  • the unfolding impact of climate change, rising food prices, upward trending oil prices – and other sources of potential destabilisation,
  • dramatically broadened opportunities for citizens’ political participation in resolving these challenges.

Both the challenges and the empowerment of participation are beyond the range of capabilities gifted to foreign ministries by their institutional DNA.  To match up to them, we need an innovative powerhouse of new approaches to doing international politics. The formation of the EAS offered that opportunity to construct an institution fit for 21st century purposes. It is not clear that this opportunity has been lost yet it remains unclear that it has been seized.

The second reason for concern is the risk that an EAS that behaves like an ordinary foreign ministry will trip over heels of the German, French, British and a few other governments’ foreign ministries.

Charts never fully reflect they organisation they are illustrating and is never the whole story. It is nonetheless important especially because staffing draws on the same human sources as the basic structural idea – foreign policy people.

True enough, they will come from the different national governments, from the EU Council of Ministers and the European Commission. Each of these bodies has its distinctive organisational culture. But it is diversity within a pretty limited range.

In the arguments that have shaped the EAS, Catherine Ashton, appears to have a won a considerable number. As I anticipated on the basis of her record in the House of Lords (see earlier blogs) she has shown herself to be a shrewd deal-maker and by no means the pushover her opponents were talking her down to be. Nonetheless, she has won tactical issues in a decision-making process that from the outset was subject to a gravity pull towards the unstated assumptions that underlie the shape and structure and, indeed, behaviour, of an ordinary foreign ministry. Her wins are within those limits.

These are all reasons for continued concern about how the EAS will pan out once it is fully operational. But there is also a major positive.


On the other hand, the same organigramme carries a strap-line:


And that is something that is worthwhile, worth fighting for and working with. If Cathy Ashton can imbue the service with that mission, she can still produce an Action Service that is a major international institutional innovation and that could be of historic significance.

The long game of conflict prevention

The EAS enters the global arena with characteristics derived from the broad and long-lasting dimensions of the EU rather than the daily detail of in-fighting and compromise. Ultimately, this is what makes a well-led EAS an exciting prospect.

The EU is not a state and will never be one, but nor is it just a multilateral organisation or a trading bloc. It is itself, sui generis. It has huge economic weight its political decision-makers often find hard to deploy. At its best the EU (and the EAS on the EU’s behalf) can be

  • More focused, bold and cohesive than the UN or the OSCE;
  • Broader ranging in geography and issues than NATO;
  • Admittedly slower, less targeted and with lower impact than a major state ;
  • But also less selfish, flighty and fickle than most states (including its own members).

At the same time, no other major global actor has such a central and durable interest in building a world system based on the rule of law. For big and medium powers, interest comes first and commitment to the rule of law is contingent upon that, while, by definition, small powers are not global actors. The UN is global and law-committed but it is a forum rather than an actor; as a world body, it is no more than the sum of its heterogeneous states (and sometimes less). Its agencies depend for their continued operations on relations with states whose attitude to international law ranges from conditional via negligent to contemptuous.

The EU is a global actor in which the commitment to international law is hard-wired through the pooling of sovereignty that membership entails. This pooling makes sense in its own terms given the general benefits of EU membership but it makes most sense in a world in which state sovereignty is more effectively constrained by international law than today

For the EAS these considerations add up to prioritising an approach based on the long-term – it means specialising in playing the long game. As the EU’s external face, the EAS will have a broader range of capabilities than most of its member states and more underlying policy durability than any of them.

Thus, an EU service dedicated to conflict prevention, security and stability must be able to interpret and operationalise each of these terms in a long-range perspective. When crises arise as they must, crisis response has to be focused on actions within that long-lasting framework, avoiding the temptation of simply chasing after events.

This is the service Cathy Ashton is setting up. This is the ambition. What does she need to do in order to achieve it?

Pretty obviously, she needs to get the set-up right and she needs some early successes.

getting the set-up right

Cathy Ashton’s approach is that having a separate section on conflict prevention is virtually a sell-out. The risk is that a separate section ghettoises the issue; she wants conflict prevention to colour everything the EAS does.

Great – but peace and security issues do not mainstream themselves across a service, especially one whose initial recruitment is inevitably and rightly of people who are well established in their careers.

So there are a couple of things to do – or get done – as the service approaches cruising speed late this or early next year.

First, Cathy Ashton needs to find an institutional home for a core team that acts as a centre of excellence on conflict prevention, security and stability within the service. If she doesn’t do that at the outset, long-term conflict approaches will be sidelined by the press of events and the dominance of crisis-response among her staff, on her agenda, in politics, among her international counterparts, in the air she breathes. To ensure the banner her service carries is not mere fluttering decoration she will set up some sort of special section eventually. Better sooner than later, I reckon – so best if it’s done at the outset.

It won’t need to be an especially big team but it needs to carry weight within the service. It must have unchallengeable expertise and be backed by the High Representative’s personal authority with the solid support of the service’s top management. It does not have to have any particularly peace-y/conflict-y name but it does have to be located in a place where it can affect the main issues. It should probably sit between her and the regional directorates and sieve the issues and the responses that the directorates and the High Rep’s cabinet are handling.  

Second, there’s the staff. To ensure a viable conflict prevention strategy colours everything the service does, it has to be embedded in professional formation – in recruitment, career path, incentives and succession. Absorbing and operationalising it need to be among the criteria for reward and promotion. And it needs to be started now because it will be much harder to do it as an after-thought.

What success might look like

How would success look – that is, how will we know that the EAS is fulfilling the mission? What are reasonable criteria or expectations?

Thinking about the initial timeframe to mid-2013 when Cathy Ashton will present a major interim report (pushed back from 2012 in earlier plans), I would suggest two indicators:

1. What you might call a “good” crisis – i.e., a response to immediate events that shows the EAS and the High Rep herself bring something new to the table of international politics. As I have suggested in earlier blogs that “something new” should be based on high levels of expertise and a focus on the long game. So responding to a humanitarian disaster, whether natural or caused by war, with not just emergency relief but a long recovery and reconstruction plan would fit the bill.

2. Matching promise to delivery on, let’s say, two big issues. The EU is good at mouthing off but the implementation is often deficient. The member states can usually agree to cover their differences with careful wording, but that paper over their cracks splits when the action gets started. If Cathy Ashton can conquer the internal divisions enough to produce consistency between the word and the deed – if through the EAS she can teach the EU to walk the talk – that will be some achievement indeed.

So what would be appropriate issues on which to seek this consistency? I might say trade, not least because Cathy Ashton has considerable competence in that area, having been EC Trade Commissioner. However, trade remains a Commission area (or “competence”) so freedom of action here is limited for the EAS. I might also say relations in the EU’s neighbourhood would be a fruitful area of engagement but these have also been removed from the EAS’s purview and put under the Enlargement DG (which, by the way, gives a confusing and even misleading message to, for example, the governments and people of the South Caucasus). I might also say the Middle East because an EU policy that implemented EU law in relation to Israel and Palestine is an outcome devoutly to be desired – but I think it’s also too high a bar by which to measure the EAS’s effectiveness because the role of the US is always the most important external consideration.

But there are plenty of other areas and issues where EU needs to raise its game. Pick two from the following long-term security-related themes and regional issues:

  • Climate change: Ref Copenhagen, the existing negotiating mechanism is bust. The EAS should not focus on designing a new one but rather on the complex diplomacy of constructing a coalition for a progressive response to climate change that includes mitigation, greening the economy and support for adaptation to face the impact of climate change, especially in developing countries. NEEDED: technical expertise, long view, diplomacy, financial ingenuity, huge sums of money.
  • Relations with China: Now the second biggest economy in the world, un-ignorable on most major issues including climate change and trade, and increasingly a likely partner in building durable international trading relations and structures, as long as its concerns are not sidelined. NEEDED: long pragmatic view, deep understanding of China, tough diplomacy, capacity to link up diverse policy areas.
  • Relations with Russia: Also un-ignorable, though those of its actions that are most important for the EU take place in a somewhat narrower framework of issues and regions than China’s. This is more than a question of energy security, which seems to be the filter through which many EU policy makers see the relationship with Russia, and also more than an issue of human rights, which is how many others seem to see it. The key question and challenge is how to construct a security partnership in the huge swathe of territory from southeastern Europe, through the southern Caucasus, the northern rim of the Middle East and Central Asia. NEEDED: deep multi-regional historical knowledge, long-term approach, solid diplomacy, tough-minded prioritisation.  
  • Africa policy: Africa’s national and regional political institutions continue to be weaker than they need to be even if in many aspects they are getting stronger than they were. Powerful outsiders can therefore pick off what they want in Africa without helping on issues such as trade fairness, investment incentives, infrastructure and governance. The EU knows how to deliver development aid projects but, like other donors and outsiders, has little idea about how to support the development process in Africa. Putting that right is ambitious, and therefore slow, and also essential so it should start now. NEEDED: bold vision, clarity on objectives, coalition building, shedloads of money.
  • The EU’s energy economy: The IEA estimates that meeting world energy needs and restricting carbon emissions requires investment in all forms of energy infrastructure amounting to $36.5 trillion by 2030 – i.e., about $1.8 trillion a year on average. In the long-run, that huge investment will generate profits but mobilising it in the first place is the big issue. Unless the international energy market goes green of itself at an unfeasibly high speed, this is a deeply political issue. Inaction will lead to crises mounting year by year but inaction is the default mode for individual states. Which makes this an ideal topic on which the EAS should develop solid specialised expertise. NEEDED: capacity to combine knowledge from different fields, credibility so as to generate a shared view of the future, policy innovation, capacity to inspire joint action.
  • International development: There is a quiet but important role waiting to be carried out and the large number of countries where the EU has a presence, in the form of a Union Delegation that the EAS will run, means the EAS is best placed to do it. The task is to provide coordination and a degree of leadership to EU government donors in developing countries. It is always difficult to carry out the notional commitments to coherence between donor governments unless someone takes the lead. In a few cases, this comes down to a trusted individual from one donor agency taking the lead. In most casers it comes down to nobody doing anything very much because whatever they talk about when they have their donor liaison meetings, they have to report back and get contradictory sets of advice and instruction from their capitals. Done carefully, the EAS could take the lead. NEEDED: a clear lead and a delegated attention to detail.

It’s a big agenda and this is not the full list of issues on which the world sorely needs a new, thoughtful and firm global actor. If not the EAS, who? If not now, when?

3 thoughts on “The EAS: what it takes to succeed

  1. Pingback: The EAS: what it takes to succeed « EPLO blog

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