A new opportunity for EU foreign policy

A new opportunity for EU foreign policy

Bulletin article
01 February 2011

The EU's foreign policy has not impressed many people in recent years. A wide range of views among member-states has made it hard for the EU to develop focused policies on key issues such as Russia and China. With its commitment to multilateralism - strong global rules and institutions - the EU often looks ill-equipped to deal with emerging powers that take a hard-nosed, realist approach to diplomacy. And in Brussels, too many officials have been busy with the vicious bureaucratic infighting involved in building the new European external action service (EEAS), rather than the real world.

In fact, the EU countries agree on more policies and actions around the world than many people are aware of - most of them are low-key rather than newsworthy. Last year, for example, the EU withdrew trade preferences from Sri Lanka because of its human rights record and imposed tougher sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear programme. And the new High Representative, Catherine Ashton, brokered a significant reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo.

The arrival of the EEAS gives the EU an opportunity to take stock of its global role, and to move from institutional fiddling to strategic thinking. There is too much sniping and cynicism about the EEAS. Combining bits of the Commission and the Council of Ministers secretariat plus seconded national diplomats into a single machine was never going to be easy. But Ashton is starting to find her feet. Though not a natural strategic thinker she is good with people and has developed strong relationships with some of the world's key foreign ministers. Some had hoped for a more headstrong and ambitious High Representative, to knock heads together and set the EU's agenda. With hindsight, such a figure would probably have soon become mired in battles with national capitals. In future years, when EU governments are convinced that the EEAS is effective and efficient, they may be ready for a different sort of High Representative.

Ashton has made a good start by choosing bright and experienced figures for key jobs in the EEAS. Pierre Vimont, the secretary-general, is one of France's most respected diplomats. When fully staffed, the EEAS should be a source of expertise that helps governments to develop common analyses of problems, recognise their common interests, and forge common actions and policies. It should make a difference on China, for example. Every member-state wants China to be prosperous, stable and economically open, and to respect the rule of law and the environment at home and abroad. Yet despite these similar interests they have seldom learned to work together on China.

One way for the EEAS to galvanize thinking among EU and national policy-makers would be to commission a group of experts to write an annual 'European intelligence assessment'. Modelled on the US National Intelligence Estimate, this would highlight key risks and threats to the EU, forecast future developments, and suggest priorities for action at EU level.

Most smaller EU countries will support the new service: they lack the resources to cover the world on their own, and see that the EU can amplify their voice. Ashton's challenge is to convince the foreign ministries in Berlin, London and Paris that the EEAS is complementary rather than a competitor. Too often the big member-states pursue their own deals with third countries, against an agreed EU line. EU foreign policy risks becoming a dumping ground for issues that national governments pay lip-service to but will not stand up for. For example, certain capitals say little about the erosion of democracy in Russia, but want the EU's Russia policy to have a strong human rights component. Some EU governments court Beijing in the hope of winning commercial deals - while urging the Commission to be tough with the Chinese on opening markets, protecting intellectual property and obeying global trade rules. Before last October’s EU-China summit, several EU capitals led Beijing to believe that it would receive 'market economy status'. But the same governments then pushed the Commission to tell the Chinese at the summit that they could not gain that privilege unless they gave ground on market access. The Chinese were, understandably, annoyed. National capitals need to be honest and transparent in their dealings with Europe's partners.

The EU's foreign policy should prioritise its neighbourhood. Pronouncements on distant continents will not be taken seriously unless the EU is seen to have clout in its own back yard. Brussels does wield influence in the Balkans, since it can offer the credible carrot of membership. But further afield - whether dealing with the growth of authoritarianism in Belarus and Ukraine, tension in the Caucasus or instability on the southern rim of the Mediterranean - the EU often punches below its weight. Now that economic growth has returned to (at least parts of) Europe, EU governments should be less reluctant to open borders to goods and people from neighbouring regions. The EU also needs to prepare for a stronger role in the Middle East Peace Process. Already the leading aid-provider for the Palestinians and trade partner for Israel, the EU has great potential to complement rather than compete against the US. If there ever is any kind of peace deal, the EU must be ready to offer markets, money and peacekeepers.

Finally, the EU should be faithful to its principles, including democracy and multilateralism. Of course, the leaders of many countries do not share those values. The EU must deal with the world as it is and engage them. But that should not prevent European leaders - and especially those in the big EU states - from speaking out on human rights. For example, in the Maghreb the concern of some EU capitals to shore up secular regimes and boost commerce has led to the Union downplaying human rights. That has damaged its standing among many Arabs. The EU should remember that much of its soft power stems from being true to its principles. And if the EU does not stand up for strong global rules and institutions, it cannot assume that others will.

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