Making a success of the EAS

21 May 2009

by Charles Grant

If the Irish people vote yes to the Lisbon treaty at the second attempt, and the Czechs, Germans and Poles also ratify, the EU will set up an ‘external action service’ or EAS. This new institution promises to make the Union’s common foreign and security policy more effective. But of course an EAS will not mean that the EU suddenly develops a single foreign policy on every issue. The EU’s inability to develop a coherent approach to Russia, for example, would probably not be very different if an EAS was in place. Different member-states believe that they have different interests in Russia and so disagree on how to handle it.

That said, some of the EU’s incoherence in foreign policy can be put down to its often dysfunctional institutions, notably the rotating presidency; the split between both the High Representative (currently Javier Solana) and the external relations commissioner (currently Benita Ferrero-Waldner), and their respective bureaucracies; and the fact that the current institutions do not provide EU foreign ministers with high quality analysis on a number of important subjects.

The EAS should solve some of those problems. It will be a single bureaucracy made up of the merged foreign desks of the Commission and the Council of Ministers secretariat, as well as secondees from member-states. It will be led by the new High Representative or HR, fusing the Solana and Ferrero-Waldner jobs. That individual plus the EAS will take on the tasks currently performed by the rotating presidency, in terms of external representation and foreign policy.

If the member-states get the design of the EAS right – and give it the budget it needs – it should improve EU foreign policy in four ways.

1) The EAS should help the EU to join up its foreign policies. The EU has the potential to play a powerful international role because it has such a broad range of instruments at its disposal, such as aid, trade, soldiers, policemen, humanitarian aid, rules on asylum and visas, and so on. Neither NATO nor the UN can draw on such wide-ranging capacities. But in practice the EU rarely joins up its external policies. Within the Commission there is seldom much co-operation between the various directorates-general, let alone between those directorates and the Council of Ministers. By merging parts of the Commission and the Council into a single institution, the EAS should help to join up EU foreign policy. But it will still be a challenge to ensure that other parts of those bodies – such as the trade, enlargement, justice and energy directorates of the Commission – work in harmony with the EAS.

2) The EAS should be able to provide more high quality and common analysis to EU ministers. If the 27 governments view a problem in a similar way, they are more likely to be able to hammer out a common approach to it. The current institutions sometimes succeed in encouraging common thinking. For example the EU has taken a single line on Iran’s nuclear programme in recent years, partly because of the quality of the analysis provided by the Situation Centre (which gathers intelligence from the member-states) in the Council of Ministers. The EAS will have more resources and expertise than the current array of Brussels institutions. National diplomats seconded to it should help to feed in the best analysis from national capitals.

3) The integration of the Commission’s 120-odd overseas representations into the EAS should increase the EU’s clout. At the moment they focus (naturally) on the Commission’s priorities and are of little help to Solana and his team in Brussels, or to EU foreign ministers. In order to improve their performance and enhance their expertise in areas like political reporting and hard security, senior figures from national governments should be given prominent roles in some missions. These offices will need to have positions to represent in their part of the world, which will probably encourage the EAS to develop common policies. They will play a role in co-ordinating (though not managing) the work of member-state embassies. They will represent the smaller member-states that have no embassy in the country concerned. Even large member-states such as Britain or Germany do not have embassies everywhere and may find EU missions useful. In the longer run, small and large member-states may start to rely on missions as a way of saving money: if and when a government trusts the quality of the EAS’s work, it may decide to close embassies in countries that it considers relatively unimportant.

4) The EAS will eliminate the problem that a weak presidency can undermine EU foreign policy. The Czech presidency has, by general consent, been one of the worst in memory, and not only because the government collapsed half way through. When the EU is represented by the High Representative and the EAS it will, one may hope, be spared the embarrassments it has faced in the first half of 2009.

It is inevitable that the creation of the EAS will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Each of the existing bureaucracies, as well as the member-states, will fight to protect its specific interests. The EAS will need to be shaped by men and women of vision who can look beyond those interests. Whether or not the EAS is a success will depend, in part, on how well it meets four challenges.

1) Will the EAS attract very good people to work for it? National governments must send their best and brightest. It is not self evident that they will: the UK, for example, has not always sent its top diplomats to work in the Council of Ministers secretariat. The High Representative must be the kind of politician who inspires and whom bright young people will want to work for. And he or she will need to get on well with the president of the European Council (a new post) and the Commission president. The effectiveness of both the Commission and the Council of Ministers is marred by national flags being imposed on particular jobs. The High Representative must have the freedom to appoint the best people to the key jobs (of course, every member-state must have people in the EAS). He or she will also need deputies. Solana works about 100 hours a week, but the new HR will have extra responsibilities in the Commission and in chairing the meetings of EU foreign ministers. The HR will need at least five senior deputies: for traditional diplomacy, managing military missions, generating civilian capabilities, working with the various Commission directorates, and ensuring that justice and home affairs (JHA) is integrated into external policies. Other deputies may be needed to focus on specific regions.

2) Will the EAS succeed in stitching together policy on JHA with the EU’s foreign policies? A lot of the things the EU does that matter to the rest of the world are in areas like visas, asylum, illegal immigration, organised crime, counter-terrorism, police and judicial co-operation and border controls. At the moment the EU seldom joins up policies in these areas with other external policies. For example, when the JHA directorate general negotiates an agreement on the repatriation of illegal immigrants with a third country, it can offer to discuss visa rules, but not trade, aid or non-proliferation, which are handled by other parts of the EU. The EAS needs to find a way of integrating the EU’s work on JHA with other external policies.

3) When several parts of the EU are operating in the same problem country, will the EAS manage to co-ordinate their work? When there are several EU missions in the same country they tend not to work together. For example, when the EU peacekeeping mission arrived in Bosnia it found that the EU police mission, the Commission office and the EU special representative’s office had different objectives and did not want to work with it. There was little co-ordination from Brussels. There have been similar problems in Congo and Afghanistan. In order to ensure that the various EU agencies work together in such important places, the EAS should deploy a special representative to each of them. He or she should have the authority to co-ordinate the work of the various missions on the ground.

4) Will the 27 member-states identify with the EAS and trust it to promote their interests? Most small countries will see the value of a body that can represent them in places where they lack embassies. But there is a real danger that the foreign ministries of Britain, France or Germany could see the EAS as a rival source of power and as a competitor for money and the best people. They would then work round or against the EAS. The High Representative should therefore ensure that the big countries are given the chance to send good people to fill some of the top posts in the EAS. If the HR can establish an efficient bureaucracy that produces high-quality analysis, national foreign ministries will, hopefully, learn to respect it.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.