European Affairs

Officially, these titles are not used because they imply a degree of federal cohesion that the EU as a whole is not ready to acknowledge. In effect, however, many new diplomatic functions and responsibilities will now be under the remit of the new “External Action Service” operating under the new “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” as created in the Lisbon Treaty.

As far as other countries are concerned, this innovation about handling external relations may prove to be one of the most significant features to emerge from the treaty. Institutionally, the “High Representative” is out-ranked in policy-making by another new EU official, the President of the Council. Yet, there are indications that the new President will be involved primarily in forging consensus on intra-EU issues among the 27 member states and that much of the EU’s business with the rest of the world will be channeled through the High Representative, who is also a vice-president of the European Commission, and the staff that will be created to operate from new EU offices abroad. (Already, the Delegation of the European Commission in Washington has become the Delegation of the European Union – in effect, one of the largest embassies in the U.S. capital.)

Many questions remain to be answered. What will be the demarcation between EU business and other issues that continue to be handled bilaterally by member states as part of their sovereign authority? How will the new “corps” be recruited and how capable will it be? When will the new set-up find its footing as a player? Some tentative answers seem to be appearing already. EU member states will retain tight control over such issues as defense and they will continue to concentrate on areas of special national interest: for example, all the big EU countries and some of the smaller ones will want to keep a strong national focus on Russia. All the EU states will want to keep some direct ties with Washington. Nonetheless, the EU diplomacy will gradually play a larger role in situations where the EU is already largely in control – such the Balkans. Some experienced Brussels hands predict the “EU diplomacy” will gradually come into its own as the policy arm of choice for member states in “crisis management” situations, as are liable to arise in Africa or the Caucasus. Recruiting the new EU diplomats from existing European bodies and from national diplomatic services will reflect the evolution of the balance between collective diplomacy and the legacy matters handled nationally. This process – almost a shake-down cruise for a new big ship – is expected to take at least the five-year lifetime of the new European Commission.


Before offering forecasts in any more detail, it is worth recalling the background and understanding how far the EU has come in the process that culminated in the Lisbon Treaty. It marks the end of a lengthy and often-troublesome process of institutional reform that started with the European Constitution, which was first broached in 2001. Three years later, a draft was prepared under the chairmanship of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, who worked with a committee of 105 members. It was circulated and signed by governments, but stumbled at the ratification hurdle: both France and the Netherlands chose to seek ratification by referendum (rather than via parliament), and both the French and Dutch rejected it in votes in May and June 2005. Since unanimity was required, member states had no choice but to put aside the constitution and start a “period of reflection.”

That hiatus came to an end in early 2007: during the German Presidency of the EU, Chancellor Angela Merkel was determined to re-inject momentum to the institutional process. The year long discussions between member-states resulted in the Lisbon Treaty, signed on 13 December 2007, which incorporated some elements of the failed European Constitution and proposed a number of amendments to the way the European Union functioned. Although the Lisbon Treaty quickly ran into trouble when the Irish electorate failed to ratify it in a referendum in June 2008, it eventually managed, unlike the European Constitution, to withstand setbacks. Britain, under a Labor prime minister, Gordon Brown, resisted pressure for a referendum and ratified the treaty by a narrow majority in Parliament. Irish voters recanted in a second referendum in October 2009, and the following month, Czech President Vaclas Klaus, often a difficult EU partner, finally signed the Lisbon Treaty, thus ending the prolonged ratification process.


Now that the Lisbon Treaty has entered into force, it means a number of important innovations for the European Union in the diplomatic field, starting with the creation of two very prominent positions: a President of the European Council elected for a two and a half year term, and a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Alongside the new President, the old system of a rotating national presidency for six months is set to continue on internal affairs, at least temporarily. The new High Representative post is the result of the merger into one of three previously existing positions, the President and chairman of the External Relations Council (a post occupied by the foreign minister of the country holding the six-month rotating EU presidency), the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy (a position long held by Javier Solana, who stepped down on December 1), and the Commissioner for External Relations (a rotating post in the Commission held most recently by Benita Ferrero-Waldner). The new foreign policy chief will also be assisted by a soon to be created large diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS).

It remains to be seen whether and when these innovations will be sufficient to achieve the stated goal of giving the EU a stronger voice on the world stage. The fact the member states chose two relatively unknown candidates – Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy for the Presidency of the European Council and British Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton for the role of foreign policy chief – suggests that they are loath to relinquish too much power to these new positions. A more coherent external policy for the EU will still depend to a large extent on whether or not the member states can reach a consensus on key issues.

Moreover, High Commissioner Ashton will face a number of bureaucratic difficulties that threaten to seriously impede her effectiveness. Her predecessor Javier Solana, because he mostly flew under the institution radar, could afford to act mostly as a roving diplomat. Ashton will not have the same luxury. Her crowded agenda – including attending the weekly meeting of the European commissioners in Brussels, appearing in front of the EU parliament and chairing the foreign affairs council – and the inevitable turf wars in the crowded EU foreign policy patch will leave her with very limited time to engage in the key goal of developing contacts with member states and key powers like the U.S., China and Russia. On top of that, a crucial component of her success will be whether or not she can help build an efficient diplomatic corps.

Achieving the latter will not be easy to say the least. Ashton can hardly look to the text of the Lisbon Treaty for guidance since it says very little about the role and shape of the envisaged European External Action Service. Article 13-a of the Treaty only states: “In fulfilling his or her mandate, the High Representative shall be assisted by a European External Action Service. This service shall work in cooperation with the diplomatic services of the Member States and shall comprise officials from relevant departments of the General Secretariat of the Council and of the Commission as well as staff seconded from national diplomatic services of the Member States.”

Furthermore, Ashton will need to overcome a number of difficult challenges if she wants to establish a diplomatic corps that is both harmonious and effective. That includes, first of all, making sure that the member states are fully involved and supportive. In theory, they could all, for different reasons, see some advantages in the soon to be created institution. Whereas the smaller states would view it as an opportunity to invest some of their limited resources and human capital to try and maintain influence in the new service, the bigger states would welcome a more active European diplomacy in geographical areas that are of a more peripheral interest.

In practice, however, selecting staff is likely to prove very divisive. The new foreign policy chief will have to somehow balance the need to pick the best available candidates with the pressure of geographical and gender diversity, while making sure not to offend any of the member states. The more prominent countries such as France, Germany or the United Kingdom – on the basis of their larger national diplomatic services – would certainly expect to see their candidates take a prominent role in the running of the new diplomatic corps, but that risks causing resentment among their smaller partners in the EU. Moreover, it will not be easy to encourage member states to send their best candidates to Brussels. Unless they can get one of the senior jobs in the European External Action Service, top prospects in the various national diplomatic corps will not necessarily regard a secondment as a career enhancing move.

Second, in addition to the support of member states, Ashton and the new EU diplomatic service will be successful only if they can maintain good relations with the rest of the EU bureaucracy. Granted, the European External Action Service will gain some clout from the fact that it will be a sui generis institution – and one with its own section in the EU budget. But it will include staff who have moved there from the old Council Secretariat and from jobs in the Commission. That will again present a very difficult balancing act for the foreign policy chief. She will need to select the right blend of candidates from these two institutions, while making sure that they feel content with their relative influence and representation in the new diplomatic service. When the recruitment and staffing process is over, the very diverse cast of characters that will compose the new EU diplomatic corps will somehow have to work in a harmonious fashion.

Third, Ashton and the European External Action Service will need to impose their relevance in an already crowded EU foreign policy patch. As it stands, they will only be given a fairly limited role. Responsibilities will include, according to the Brussels-based website EU Observer, managing “general foreign relations as well as EU security and defense projects, such as the police missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia and Afghanistan or any future peacekeeping operations in, for example, Africa. It is also set to take charge of the Situation Centre, the EU member states' intelligence-sharing hub in Brussels.”

Trade, enlargement and development, however, will remain outside its remit, and within the competence of the European Commission. The EU diplomatic service will also be confined to a limited role when it comes to external policy initiatives. It will be tasked with preparing initiatives, but the actual decisions and implementation will still be the privilege of the member states and the Commission.

Time will tell whether Van Rompuy, Ashton and the European External Action Service can live up to expectations and help the European Union present a stronger and more coherent voice on the world stage. The next few years, as the corps gets up and running at full speed, will be vital therefore in making sure that it is provided with very solid foundations for the future. The success of the Lisbon Treaty in the diplomatic fields depends on it.

Garret Martin is editor-at-large at European Affairs