Constitutional fudge

Constitutional fudge

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
19 June 2007

So far, Britain's stance on the German attempt to revise the EU treaties has been - from a British perspective - broadly reasonable. The common position of 10 Downing St, the Foreign Office and the Treasury is that the new treaty must not transfer powers from member-states to the EU. So at the EU summit in Brussels this week, Britain will ask for the right to opt out of sensitive areas where national vetoes are likely to be scrapped, such as justice and home affairs, and social security. And a way will be found to ensure that the Charter of Fundamental Rights does not apply to Britain.

But on one particular subject, the new provisions for foreign policy, British policy is shifting, and in ways that could harm both Britain and the EU.

The most significant parts of the EU's constitutional treaty that are likely to be carried over to the new amending treaty concern foreign policy. The EU's current arrangements for representing its viewpoint to the rest of the world - when it has a single viewpoint - are dysfunctional. The rotating presidency shifts from one member-state to another every six months, at the cost of continuity and credibility with rest of the world. And the diplomatic side of foreign policy, under the High Representative (now Javier Solana) in the Council of Ministers, is separated from the economic side, under the commissioner for external relations (now Benita Ferrero-Waldner). Solana and Ferrero-Waldner run two bureaucracies that work on the same problems (such as the Middle East, the Balkans, Russia and energy) but do so separately, leading to different priorities and, too often, mixed messages to the outside world. Because the huge spending programmes of the Commission are seldom well-aligned with the EU's political objectives, as set by the Council, Europe's influence in the world is less than it could and should be.

During the negotiation of the constitutional treaty, the British and their allies sought to fix these problems by creating a new "foreign minister", based on the jobs now held by Solana and Ferrero-Waldner. This person would chair meetings of the foreign ministers, replacing the rotating presidency. He or she would also speak for the EU externally, instead of the current "troika" of the foreign minister of the presidency, the High Representative and the external relations commissioner. The foreign minister would be supported by an "external action service", consisting of the relevant officials from the Council of Ministers and the Commission, and supplemented by others from the member-states. The job of this service would be to provide advice, analysis and expertise to the foreign minister.

However, at a dinner of EU foreign ministers in Brussels this week, Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, unveiled a new British policy. The first point she made was expected, and not unreasonable: the title of "foreign minister" should be changed, since it could imply that the incumbent had authority over national foreign ministers. But she then said that this person should not chair the meetings of foreign ministers. She would restore this function, which includes the ability to set the agenda and sum up at the end, to the rotating presidency. This is bizarre: Britain has pioneered efforts to reduce the role of the rotating presidency - often in the face of tough opposition from smaller countries, which remain attached to the institution. I have even heard William Hague, never a great EU-enthusiast, say that the rotating presidency was a system that needed reform. The NATO secretary-general chairs meetings of NATO foreign and defence ministers, but does not have any power over them. NATO would be much less effective if the secretary-general was replaced by a rotating presidency.

Beckett then went further, saying that the British could not accept the external action service. Apparently the creation of such a service could be portrayed as "state-building" - despite the fact that a merger of the departments working for Solana and Ferrero-Waldner would not give the EU new powers vis-à-vis the member-states. It does not make sense for Britain to support the foreign minister (or whatever that person is called) but not an external action service. It would be like having a conductor without an orchestra - or rather, a conductor trying to conduct two separate orchestras at the same time.

In fact the EU already has a kind of external action service - the Commission - over which the member-states have no direct control. The Commission has about 3,500 staff working on external relations, over 120 overseas representations and a foreign policy budget that will soon rise to around €10 billion a year. Solana - under the control of the member-states - has a total of about 500 staff (including the military staff), a budget of €125 million and no more than a handful of overseas representations. The creation of the external action service would not only bring together the two sides of EU foreign policy, but also give the member-states some leverage over the Commission's resources. Which is why many federalists, including those in the Commission, have never liked the idea.

Most of the smaller member-states initially opposed the plan for an external action service, because they understand that bigger countries tend to dominate EU foreign policy machinery. They have seen that happen within the small staff that works for Solana (where the three key officials are Pierre de Boissieu, the Frenchman who runs the Council of Ministers secretariat; Robert Cooper, the British head of the directorate for external relations; and Helga Schmid, the German head of the policy unit). Britain, alongside the other large member-states, would be well-placed to influence the external action service. This is because Britain has a lot of highly skilled diplomats who would be well-qualified to take the top jobs.

Britain is taking serious risks in trying to re-open the foreign policy part of the institutional package that the Germans want to salvage from the constitutional treaty. Other countries are now questioning aspects of the package that they dislike. Take the British priority of a fulltime president of the European Council, who - instead of the prime minister of the rotating presidency - would chair summits and set the agenda. Only three countries - Britain, France and Germany - are keen on the full-time president, and if the package is reopened, Britain could lose that reform. In fact, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Luxembourg and Hungary have already said that they will oppose the creation of the Council president if Britain persists in trying to gut the new foreign policy supremo of all substance.

The new British stance on the foreign minister has created great ill will in Brussels and other capitals. But Britain needs the good will of its partners in order to secure its priorities in other areas, such as justice and home affairs, social security and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Hence, for both reasons of substance and tactics, the last-minute British attempt to re-open the foreign policy provisions is unwise. Britain favoured the streamlining of EU foreign policy procedures for good reasons. The reforms it backed in the constitutional treaty would not, if implemented, weaken the UK's ability to veto an EU foreign policy it disliked. They would enhance Europe's global influence, when all member-states agree on a policy. The British government should think again.