The Review of the External Action Service

When the European External Action Service was formally set up in July 2010, it was agreed that the High Representative Catherine Ashton should present a review of it this summer. As Brussels descended into summer slumber, that is what she did.

The Quiet European

The low-key, cool, quiet – heavens, almost secretive – way the review was published reflects an approach Cathy Ashton has taken consistently since her appointment to the EU’s top international policy job. Responding to a remark by the UK’s then Foreign Secretary David Miliband that the High Representative should be somebody who could stop the traffic in Washington, DC (e.g., T Blair), Ashton said, ‘In fact my job is to keep traffic moving. I’m not interested in the limelight. I’m interested in what we can actually do.’

As if to rub the point home, the same week that the EEAS review was released, Ashton visited Egypt’s ex-President Morsi, the first senior foreign envoy to do so since his overthrow.  It’s a sign of being taken seriously by both the military and the mainstream Islamists in Egypt – no mean achievement and the result of some quiet, persistent work.

Reviewing the Review

The EEAS Review is Cathy Ashton’s assessment of the EEAS so far and her outline of what is needed for it to function as she believes it should.

Ashton has announced publicly that she is not a candidate for a second term as High Representative of the EU (and Vice-President of the European Commission) and the chat has inevitably started in Brussels and further afield about who will succeed her. Because she’s stepping down, there’s one or two places where the Review is being viewed as her attempt to outline a legacy. Per-haps – but my bet is she would have pretty much the same recommendations if she wanted to stay on. Essentially, two and a half years in (the EEAS was set up in July 2010 and launched in December 2010) (though for some reason the date is sometimes given as January 2011), this is an initial assessment of how things have gone and what needs improving and how.

I find the Review striking in three main ways.

  1. It is very revealing;
  2. It is sometimes quite personal;
  3. It is all about form rather than content, structure and system rather than policy or politics.

1. Revealing

The review concludes with 26 short-term and 9 medium-term recommendations. That’s 35 things that can be done better. Broadly speaking their main focus on efficiency through better coordination and effectiveness through, er, better coordination. Turn these recommendations round from solutions to problem statements and you get a sense of the burdens of turf wars, special interests’ pleading and institutional overlaps under which the High Representative and the service she leads have been labouring.

2. Personal

To quote from the foreword by Cathy Ashton:

“Despite the length of the negotiations on the Constitution and then the Lisbon Treaty nothing had been put in place to make the EEAS a reality…

“There is much that could be written about those early days – and of the extraordinary events that took place as we started to build the service…

“I have likened it to trying to fly a plane while still bolting the wings on. The institutional challenges, and sometimes battles, were many…

“It was in a word, tough.”

And quoting from the body of the Review (p13):

“The Lisbon Treaty establishes the responsibilities of the High Representative, combining the tasks previously held by the Foreign Minister of the Member State with the Rotating Presidency, the High Representative/Secretary General of the Council Secretariat and the former Commissioner for External Relations. While the benefits of combining the jobs are clear, experience has clearly shown that this concentration of responsibilities in a single post generates a huge and relentless workload for one person.”

And my favourite because of the very English way it doesn’t quite say that the job is simply impossible:

“Within the physical constraints of the triple hatted job, the HR/VP actively participates in meetings of the Commission.”

Though I reckon the recommendations would be the same if Cathy Ashton wanted to continue in post, I wonder if some of this would have been edited out.

3. Formal

All of the recommendations and almost all the analysis on which they are based are about how the EEAS should work, not what it should it do, where it should focus. The main body of 26 short-term recommendations are grouped under three headings – organisation, functioning and staffing – and the 9 medium-term recommendations are under the first two of those three.

There is no discussion of policy priorities or how well the EEAS has pursued them. It’s telling that when you get to the topic of performance in section IV of the Review, it’s all about staffing issues. And there are only the very vaguest generalities about goals: the affirmation of a special European role in the world, a sketch of the EU’s basic values, and the characterisation of the EEAS as “a modern and operational foreign policy service, equipped to promote EU interests and values in our relations with the rest of the world.”

There is probably a good reason for this silence on policy and politics. I don’t know what it is so I’m going to speculate wildly that it is an effort to avoid distracting attention from some necessary but tediously detailed reforms to the mechanism of the EEAS. Put the policy and politics in and that’s what the discussion will be about, with every chance that it will personalise quickly into arguments about Cathy Ashton herself. Keep them out and there’s a chance it will be about the important nuts and bolts.

Even so, we need to reflect on the performance of the EEAS so far and the purpose it serves, as a background to decisions about its future. So here are some thoughts about performance with reflections on purpose to come in my next blog in the coming days.


When you think about this, the starting point is the hand that the new High Representative was dealt when she was appointed. NB: the EEAS did not exist at that point. It was fully seven months before the decision to set it up was formally taken and a further five months before it was launched.

So you could start by saying that Cathy Ashton started out by playing from a very weak hand. Very weak – not only was she not dealt any aces or trumps, she started out with almost no cards at all. For example, I wonder whether her metaphor of flying a plane while bolting on the wings was inspired by the fact that at the outset she did not even have a budget to fly herself from one high level meeting to another.

Everything had to be generated from scratch after she had been appointed and started work and she had to do that within the terms of the Treaty of Lisbon, smuggling cards down her sleeve as she went.

By 2013 the EEAS has become a significant institution – €500 million budget, 3,400 staff, represented internationally through 139 delegations and offices.

In terms of diplomacy, achievements include good work in the Balkans, easing relations between Serb and Kosovar leaders; a leading role in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear status; and manoeuvring the EU into a sensible and effective position in relation to the complex situations in Egypt and Tunisia, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

The diplomacy on these issues and others such as climate change, and the key strategic relationships with the US, Russia and China, has to be pursued on multiple tracks at once, because each EU member state has a policy that it doesn’t have to check with anybody else first, whereas the EU can only have a policy, and Cathy Ashton and the EEAS can only pursue it if all 28 member governments agree.

So by way of a conclusion:

  • The EEAS has been built and it functions;
  • It has some foreign policy achievements;
  • There are at least 35 ways in which it could function better.

It remains to discuss the purpose of its functioning.

One thought on “The Review of the External Action Service

  1. When talking institutions, we always look at what the institutions could deliver. This is why institutions are never wrapped up. A more interesting question would be: what would plan B have given. What would another institutional setup have delivered.

    What if EEAS would not have been created? Appointing a strong foreign policy head for Europe, but without a new institutions.
    Building an EEAS would have been not necessary. Imagine the savings and the freed up energy for other work. Policy for instance.
    Most of the foreign policy achievements could have been achieved with relex and the existing intsturments at the commission. It is not clear to me which ones were only possible within the EEAS structure. I honestly guess none.

    And institutional reform is always good to keep everybody busy. Without it, management would just look silly.

    Can we go back? Of course we can. Only, as everybody will say it is impossible it would not even be tried.

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