Lisbon Treaty, Von Rompuy, Ashton, External Action Service: what does it all mean for Europe?


This piece was published by UniCredit's east magazine

This year, the European Union presents new faces and a retooled leadership structure. Its new president is Hermann von Rompuy, a Belgian, while Catherine Ashton has been assigned the post of foreign minister. Both positions were created to give the EU greater visibility and depth in terms of its global presence. The Lisbon Treaty also saw the creation of a European External Action Service, a foreign affairs department.

But what exactly does all this internal movement mean for Europe?

Does it transform the EU into a world power? Where will the EU rank in terms of other regional actors in an increasingly multi-polar, globalised world?

Will its new positions and their occupants be respected, or will Von Rompuy and Ashton become little more than symbolic figures, with the real foreign policy centers remaining in national capitals?

It's been 40 years since American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger allegedly quipped: "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?" The European Union has worked persistently to put away that tedious line. Now, if someone wishes to call Europe, there are two numbers they can use, three in fact, if you consider the European Commission. Whether President Barack Obama will ever feel compelled to use any of them is an open question.

Supporters of the late Jean Monnet would hail these new institutions. Institutions create their own gravity. They work within policy to carve out their own space. 

In foreign policy terms, the bet is that this tendency will hold true for Lisbon Treaty, as well as the new EU leadership positions and the European External Action Service. It's still a gamble, it's one that plenty of people in Brussels want to win.

The key idea is to make the European External Action Service into a tool for a kind of post-modern foreign policy through which the EU defends not only its own values and ideas, but also those of its member states.

What does this mean in more concrete terms? A European president, in the future, would also head up the work of the European Council, giving it additional momentum. He or she would also work together with the president of the European Commission to ensure the Council's efforts have a consistent sense of purpose and continuity. This in turn would make the European Commission a more unified body, since it would answer to the European Parliament.

The European External Action Service in turn will represent the EU in all matters regarding foreign policy and security. Though the Lisbon Treaty sets limits on the office and enumerates its tasks, it doesn't go into detail about how the tasks should be carried out. It's unclear, for example, whether the new president possesses his own apparatus. His executive powers will in fact be limited, since executive action falls under the purview of European Commission, currently headed by José Barroso. Nor will he exercise control over the Council of Ministers, since that task is maintained by the various national presidencies (Spain is now in charge).

With regard to foreign policy, a dividing line needs drawing to separate the powers and actions of the president from that of the foreign minister, who in turn will head the External Action Service and the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

But the president will nonetheless exert an important role in the future system. Its occupant can present himself (or herself ) as the "face of the EU," covering a role that the EU has lacked for decades: a figure in which the European citizen sees itself. As a result, Europe will become more tangible and visible. Aside from the natural complications of power-sharing and the intrinsic struggles that arise as a result, Von Rompuy will have the opportunity, as head of the EU Council, to assign intelligent priorities in connection with European issues directly involving its citizenry, thus assuring key issues are discussed and that EU institutions actually work together.

Furthermore, Von Rompuy, as a generator of new ideas and debate mediator, could become the de factor choreographer of the new Europe.

His position theoretically keeps him from running the risk of getting lost in bureaucratic shadows or being trapped in squabbles over responsibilities.

Much hinges on his personality and the charisma the office itself brings to bear on the institutions around it and on Europe itself.

The new foreign affairs ministry is an essentially practical office, but also furnishes a strong power base. A key detail is that the foreign minister will also act as vice president, strongly linking the office to the European Commission, as well as heading up the European External Action Service (under Article 27.3 of the Treaty of Maastricht). The European External Action Service represents an overhaul of the existing pillar system that has dominated the EU scene so far - namely, EU policy vs. intergovernmental priorities - in which individual policy areas were divided by jurisdiction, Europe Council vs. European Commission.

Though the Council often has political value, it's the Commission that has the both the facilities and financial resources to implement the policy. Making the two bodies see eye-to-eye in a collaborative effort is not the responsibility of the European External Action Service, which will include a number officials from the Council, Commission and from member states. Simultaneously the European Union will establish unified foreign missions.

Does this mean that European foreign policy will automatically become unified? Obviously not, or at least it won't acquire unity in all places in the same way. In Washington, Moscow and Beijing national embassies will no doubt still have greater impact than the new European missions.

But Europe's ace in the hole isn't connected to the major players.

The EU is now in a position to gamble on the goings-on in more remote nations. In the Balkans, Ukraine or Armenia, European Union policy, which includes incentives such as structural funds and convergence programs, will be seen as superior in terms of what national embassies can supply on their own. Many small so-called "second world" states will have EU missions. And these are the states that are bearing most of the brunt of changing global geo-strategy in Europe and elsewhere, giving their role a more critical importance. States such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, were of secondary importance among global players until recently. Now, they're being transformed into key actors on the policy stage, mostly for energy and security reasons. It is places such as Tbilisi and Baku, Odessa and Nagorno-Karabakh that European Union foreign policy will make notable inroads and where the European External Action Service will show its strength.

If efforts undertaken in these smaller states have a positive outcome, European representation could be extended to other states, such as those in Africa. The same applies to nations in the Western Balkans, where the European Union is already represented (though still divided according along European Council and Commission lines) and is beginning to form the real backbone of nation-shaping. If a strong institutional base and uniformity of policy are developed in the short-term, the result could well see European Union foreign policy become the transformative real lever for development in Balkan states.

The next major requirement faced by European Union will be to establish a post-modern foreign policy.

Breaking down traditional divisions within internal power structures is essential to the enterprise.

The effort should serve to overcome the classic distinctions between foreign policy and developmental strategies; between foreign policy and security needs. In most European Union member states, the breakdown is still reflected in the way national institutions are organised. There are too many domestic "communities" dedicated to foreign policy with separate ones handling developmental policy, with each side vigorously defending its own logic and integrity, thus wasting human capital.

Whether the European External Action Service should allowed access into those departments of the European Commission that handles developmental policy remains among the more controversial questions facing the new ministry. The Service will however openly aim to create stronger ties between projects, policy development and foreign policy and strategic objectives. It will, for example, attempt to integrate military missions with a civil scope into foreign policy goals, and to link climate protection objectives, say, with policy development. Such interdisciplinary efforts, even though they're not expected to last long, could be of decisive help to bolstering the strength and reputation of the Service, since in interdisciplinary work has traditionally been an EU strong suit.

The abandonment of "traditional foreign policy" could, for example, lead to the creation of missions and mediators whose efforts toward climate-protection aren't focused on Beijing but on the less well-known but deeply polluted Chinese mega-cities, attempting to lay the foundation for cooperation and environmental restraint.

Anyone who tried to pigeonhole the future of European Union foreign policy in terms of its similarities to a national state such as the United States or Russia, or even as a counterbalance to Washington, would have failed to understand the principles that motivated the creation of the European External Action Service. Aware of the state mechanisms that form an institutional part of the EU-member states depend on them - the new ministry made it a goal to avoid imitating the" old powers" paradigm.

While the EU knows it can never compete with developed nations such as China or the United States, it can help coordinate national government agendas and foreign policy strategies within the context of the European Service for External Action. The idea isn't to replace national policy with European policy, but, more fundamentally, to ensure domestic services compliment European ones. Only by accomplishing this task can the EU be true to its motto "Unity in diversity." Europe shouldn't be seen in terms of one voice but as a well-directed choir. Its foreign affairs minister, as a supranational manager, should know in just what ways national foreign ministries might be able to make a difference within the existing European structure.

In this regard Catherine Ashton faces a considerable amount of work. Much of it will depend on good faith and a willingness to break things down into areas of expertise. Consider these possibilities: entrusting the Spanish foreign ministry with a mission to Latin America, or an Italian one to Libya; letting the French occupy the Mediterranean area while instructing the Poles to observe the situation in Ukraine.

This kind of open-mindedness in policy terms would lead not only to better linkage between national and European policy, but would also allow member states a greater sense of being participants in common action with which they can identify.

The expertise of single states in certain areas can not only constitute (and compliment) a more intelligent whole, but also help ensure that shared political objective gain greater weight within the EU. This approach would lead the European External Action Service to be seen not as an office that competes with national strategies but as spokesperson for shared national foreign policy objectives.

This in turn might benefit smaller global states where European missions already have an established network of links, personnel experience and a sense of tradition. The future may well see an EU more capable of extending its influence to the Middle East, for example. Such a prospect depends on Ashton bringing together and coordinating the policy approaches of the major European states, so the EU can substantively stand in for them. Iran is a good example.

The European Union is not alone in the world. The effects of the Lisbon Treaty on EU relations with third countries will operate as a system of interlocked dikes.

It's fair to say what the EU is giving through European External Action Service it will get back from other nations. The more the EU, sovereign and powerful, pushes ahead in creating its own diplomatic missions, the more non-member countries will adapt to the notion of a united foreign policy and ensure that later policy choices are more "EU-uniform." This will naturally take time.

Even if the European Union follows the protocols laid down in Lisbon with patience and perseverance, it will probably not become a superpower, but will be able to make a significant impact on a global world through a modern form of foreign policy that is no longer limited either by national boundaries or by internal divisions.


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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.