Preparing for the mid-term review of the European External Action Service: priorities, challenges and prospects for EU foreign policy at a time of crisis

6 September 2012

“In this age of globalisation, the nature of diplomacy is changing. Gone are the days when nation states were the exclusive protagonists of foreign policy. Wealthy individuals, terrorists and international organisations now all play decisive roles too,” said David O’Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

“Soft power has become as important a part of the foreign policy equation as hard power – sometimes to the frustration of large superpowers with the hard power,” O’Sullivan said.

Nevertheless, “scale will matter in this new world, therefore Europe can better exert influence if it is united,” the EEAS official argued.

He insisted that the European Union’s foreign policy apparatus had “come a long way”, hailing the creation of the EEAS and the High Representative position occupied by Catherine Ashton as “the culmination of a journey from intergovernmental beginnings to something that looks like a common policy”.

“We must continue to develop the CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) and join the dots with other policies,” O’Sullivan argued.

“The EEAS wasn’t supposed to replace national foreign policies, but to complement them. It’s built on areas like trade and humanitarian assistance – the traditional areas of European Commission competence,” he said.

“The EEAS isn’t purely the child of the European Commission and defended by it, nor is it exclusively of member states. We need to take a long-term view. It’s a project to be judged in 5-10 years. It’s not something to be judged weekly or monthly,” O’Sullivan argued.

“I think the EEAS will come through its transition and show willingness to embrace policy entrepreneurship. It needs to become more of a factory of ideas. It won’t replace member states, but it can strengthen the EU as a whole. Taking a narrow view of it would be counterproductive for national diplomacy,” he said.

“We knew very well that the EEAS’s structure would need adapting and changing, as it was uncharted waters. The first review was set for 2013, which is probably too early. But we’re reviewing the financial perspectives: the EEAS’s effectiveness will depend on the outcome of that exercise,” said Poul Skytte Christoffersen, Ambassador of Denmark to Belgium and a former Adviser to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

“The success of the EEAS will depend on its ability to react to events, which isn’t easy if its budgetary resources have been strictly allocated beforehand,” Christoffersen warned.

“The mood is changing regarding the way in which member states are reacting to the EEAS’s work. But I still think it’s a bit less rosy than what David says regarding relations with the Commission, because there are still problems there,” the ambassador said.

“I’m surprised by the morale problems, and that it has been so difficult to amalgamate staff into the EEAS. It’s time for the staff to turn the page and adapt to how life is, bearing in mind that they may be contributing to the negative picture of the EEAS themselves,” he declared.

“[EU] presidencies need to accept the role of the EEAS, and that setting the EU’s foreign policy priorities is the responsibility of Ashton,” Christoffersen said.

“We must be cautious about the EEAS’s ability to always find common, coherent positions and policies, but we can be very optimistic about the delegations’ role in selling them abroad, and in doing public diplomacy abroad regarding the role of the EU, which we’ve had difficulty projecting in the past,” he said.

“The EEAS needs more legitimacy. Its legitimacy depends on that of the EU overall. The EEAS is legitimate if it serves well and fulfils the functions expected of it,” said Hanna Ojanen of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“There’s competition for impact. More impact for the EEAS can mean less impact for someone else. But legitimacy also means respect for the EEAS’s authority and a belief in the appropriateness of the institution. Legitimacy also comes from accountability and democratic accountability,” Ojanen said.

“There is no clear relation of accountability, because the EEAS acts in the service of a vast array of actors – itself, the European Union, member states and European citizens. If it’s difficult even to define the correct input to the EEAS, then what is the correct output?” the academic asked.

“A review would allow the EEAS to define its purpose and gain prestige, showing that it’s learning as an organisation. It needs existential legitimacy, which is linked to visibility and image. It needs popular acceptance, for which it needs popular awareness,” Ojanen said.

“Relations with the European Commission have always been a problem for the EEAS. Both sides could do better. Inter-service consultations have been set up, but there’s still a tendency to see each other as rivals rather than colleagues,” said Graham Avery, a senior adviser to the European Policy Centre and an Honorary Director-General of the European Commission.

Avery warned that some Commission departments, like trade and development aid, have long, proud histories and long-standing structures, meaning that they were finding it difficult to cope with the arrival on the scene of the EEAS. “Other departments have done better though,” he added.

“The European Parliament sees the EEAS as a tool for developing EU foreign policy. Ashton has dealt with the Parliament very well and has good relations with it, which should pay off in future budget negotiations and hearings for delegation heads,” Avery said.

As for relations with the Council, “the EEAS has regular close contact with national diplomacies in a way that the Commission never had. But sitting in on all the Council working groups may have distracted the EEAS from announcing policies itself, and from taking its own risks and initiatives,” he said.