The case for the EU having an external action service

EU High Representative and EC Vice-President Catherine Ashton steps down from leading the European External Action Service in late 2014. She has presented her review of the organisation and how to make it more efficient. But despite her best efforts the basic case for the EEAS remains unclear to many. Winning that case depends not on efficiency alone but on whether the EEAS meets an important need. 

A ministry and more

The legal basis for the EEAS is the Treaty on European Union as amended by the Treaty of Lisbon signed in December 2007.

One oddity is in Article 27 where it says the EEAS is there to assist the EU’s High Representative in “his” work. It is a peculiar way round of putting it, with the High Rep coming first while the institution sounds like just a necessary afterthought. The reality today is 3,400 staff, 139 overseas delegations and offices and a budget of about €500 million.

With this scale, it looks, as the commonly used shorthand has it, like Europe’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) (though the EEAS itself says it is more than that because it does development and defence as well).

The core arguments

There are two core arguments for the EEAS. The commonest is simply that the EU needs a body to coordinate its external relations – a body for external representation. The other is that the EEAS can fill a niche that other institutions do not and cannot. I’ll take them in turn.

The starting point of the representation argument is the EU and its needs as a necessary and important set of institutions. It thus takes its underlying premises for granted, so while it may appeal to EU enthusiasts, it lacks political bite for those who don’t buy into the fundamentals. And by the way, it’s not just the British who need persuading about all that.

With the preliminaries in place, the representation argument bifurcates.

The external face

First comes the importance of the EU showing itself to the world – having an external face. This argument supports a presence in many countries and a lot of outreach but does not say much about a policy apparatus in Brussels. It downplays the High Representative’s role in defining policy and does not necessarily give her much of a role in implementation. It’s a case for an ambitious operation to project the EU’s best face worldwide but not for a full service European MFA.

External actions

The second version of the external representation argument focuses on coordinating external actions. This is more ambitious – a major, activist foreign ministry, governed by majority voting so that objections by one or two member states can’t hem it in. In its most ambitious form, the aim is, as an informal group of foreign ministers argued last year, “to make the EU into a real actor on the global scene”.

The scale of such an operation would probably need to be greater than that of any individual member state’s MFA. Consider:

  • It would need to at least match any counterpart in knowledge and expertise;
  • It would be able to take over a lot of representation functions for a number of member states;
  • It would be able to negotiate agreements on a wide range of policy issues and positions – wider than it manages today –
  • So it could act for the EU on them all.


Both variants of the representation argument identify functions that the EU needs (arguably). It is an inward focused argument.

A quite different argument for the EEAS is based on looking outward first, and seeing that there are things that need to be done that are not currently being done (or not well enough) by existing institutions including national MFAs. Taking these on would fill a niche that others cannot. This argument takes at least three forms.

Promoting values

The first is to promote Europe’s values. This is more than the external face argument encountered above. It goes to the heart of the Treaty, whose Article 21 says the EU’s objectives are dignity and peace for everybody. Cathy Ashton’s foreword to the EEAS review notes people’s desire for the freedoms enjoyed in Europe and says,

“Our own recent history reminds us of the horrors of conflict and tyranny – and shows how prosperous, open societies can be built when those horrors are banished.”

That’s true and important but there’s more to this than shared history. The idea of promoting European values tends to get the Euro-sceptics (and quite a lot of others who recall Europe’s history) falling off their chairs with laughter but there is a serious point here. The EU is not a state and won’t be one within the lifetime of my grandchildren:

  1. It is a freely formed association of states.
  2. It is a union based on laws and legal process.

As a result, the ways and therefore the values of democracy and the rule of law are hardwired into the EU’s institutional structure. That leaves the EU better placed to promote these fundamental values than any member state.

But the sceptics – home-grown and other – also have a serious point. Here’s a foreign policy based on values but over there are foreign policy actions that put some or all of those values to one side. And some of the EU’s member states have done just that and will do so again. 

The problem this throws into relief is that promoting values is only part of a foreign policy. There are also interests to protect. The values-based argument for the EEAS offers only a limited foreign policy role; it still fails to clinch the case for a more substantial policy apparatus for international issues.

Sweeping up

A stronger argument for the policy side is made by recognising the Union’s diversity. It consists of states of different size and history, with different traditions and capacity in their apparatus for international policy. EEAS activities that might seem superfluous in Berlin, Paris or London could appear essential for Zagreb, Lisbon or Vilnius.

This is not so far from a modest version of the case for an institution to coordinate the EU’s external actions. The difference is that you have insert “some of” in front of “the EU’s external actions”. In other words, this sort of EEAS would not work across the foreign policy board but, rather, sweep up issues that are important to a significant number of member states and help out with them.

Building on this, two other sweeping up functions are important and already being carried out by the EEAS. When it is reasonably straightforward to put together an all-EU position on relatively low profile issues, the EEAS can and does act. And when it is very difficult to put together a common position on high profile issues and crises (e.g., Syria), the High Representative can and does mediate between the member governments and try to find the narrow and precarious common ground.

Dealing with a changing world

Beyond all that, there’s the world.

In this age of “more, most and never before”:

Leave aside the difficulties the smaller MFAs have in handling these issues; the larger ones don’t find it at all easy either.

For example, climate change is having an impact on the critical systems of water supply, food availability, access to energy and natural resources supply chains. These are the systems on which prosperity depends in rich and poor countries alike. Maintaining consistency of approach among a staggering range of actors across multiple issues at multiple levels is essential for an integrated approach to inter-dependent issues and challenges.

And along the way, climate-related issues of food and water security form an important part of the pressures that gave rise to the wave of change in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011 and continue to be part of what shapes that wave’s long-range trajectory.

Foreign ministries today are not at all well-placed to take these issues on. They have – at their best – the diplomatic skills and the knowledge of both national conditions and international institutions and arrangements. They lack the issue expertise, while the political cultures in which they sit lack an adequately long-term perspective.

Getting into the right century

These and similar issues are either new to foreign policy in the last 5 to 10 years or re-shape old issues in unfamiliar ways. As the World Development Report 2011 said of the shape of today’s violent conflicts, the problem is we have 19th and 20th century institutions addressing 21st century problems.

This is where the EEAS should focus and this is where the core of the case for it really lies.

It is a case that recognises our age for what it is, one when we need new approaches, knowledge and analysis, new institutions and ways of working. These are problems that cannot be resolved by the familiar methods of dispute, confrontation and negotiation but rather need dialogue and cooperation. This is not about creating coalitions of interest that win out against other coalitions; rather, it is about resolving problems – and about building institutions that can provide the space in which different interest groups meet to work out how to resolve them. 

New kinds of knowledge, new ways of working: such an institution could be casually referred to as an EU foreign ministry but it will look very different from any current MFA. It will present the EU’s external face; it will do some sweeping up and some promotion of basic values. But its essential value will lie in its ability to address the big challenges.

The High Rep’s Job Description

My colleague at International Alert, Phil Vernon, has worked up a job spec for the new High Representative to follow Cathy Ashton. Looking at what is needed to address the sort of issues I outlined above, he concluded he was not envisaging “a classic foreign policy egotist able to impose his will in the manner of a Tony Blair”.

Rather, he was picturing someone “with more ‘feminine’ characteristics: a consensus builder rather than a dealmaker”. But also a risk-taker and, I would add, a visionary.

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