The Lisbon Treaty introduced a major institutional innovation in the field of external relations by creating a common diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (EEAS). During the past 20 months this service has progressively been set up. With some 3,000 officials and an annual budget of around €500 million, it is still small but unique in its talents and language skills.
Eberhard Rhein served successively during the 1980s and 1990s as chef-de-cabinet to the Commission vice president in charge of external relations and as director responsible for the Mediterranean and Arab world. He lectures on economic policy at the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies in Malta.
"During 2011, the EEAS was prolific in drafting more than 500 statements in the name of the EU. Though such statements are valuable for creating convergence among the national foreign policy machineries, they can be no substitute for a common foreign policy.
The EEAS now represents the EU in more than 140 capitals and international organisations, with an EU ambassador speaking in the name of the EU and coordinating the diplomatic activities of the bilateral embassies that continue to function in major third countries and share much of their reporting, a huge progress compared to past practice.
Combined, the EU and bilateral embassies run the biggest diplomatic staff on earth, and through the variety of tools at their disposal they have the potential to exert considerable influence.
The EEAS is meant to be complementary to national diplomatic services, a point underlined in Declaration 13 annexed to the Lisbon Treaty.
But there can be little doubt that in the longer term the EEAS is set to replace the majority of bilateral diplomatic missions. The smaller member states will not be able to afford the luxury of maintaining diplomats throughout the world and will therefore be more than happy to see the EEAS represent their interests, including the consular ones.
Independent of any closures of national diplomatic missions, the EEAS will help implement cost-cutting measures, from co-location to sharing administrative services.
A common European diplomatic service is a necessary, but insufficient condition for forging a common foreign and security policy, as called for in Articles 21 and 22 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU).
The TEU has therefore introduced another major novelty by allowing the high representative for external affairs and security policy to chair all meetings of the 27 foreign ministers. This enables her to take policy initiatives, based on inputs from the EEAS.
During the first two years in office, the high representative, Catherine Ashton, has hardly been able to exploit this new platform for shaping common policies.
She intends to change that in the coming two years of her mandate, focusing on a few “horizontal issues” that constitute longer-term challenges faced across the world.
That may be a good idea provided the EU can make effective contributions that also correspond to European interests.
At the recent informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Cyprus, Ashton presented water and education as such issues. But is it really the most pressing job of a nascent EU foreign policy “to engage help to support the provision of water for people across the world” or get children traumatised by disaster or conflict back to school?
No doubt, water and education will be more than ever crucial for humanity. No doubt, European development policy should focus more on these two areas; and EU foreign ministers might occasionally debate these issues, based on policy inputs prepared by EEAS and Commission services.
This being said, there are other more urgent issues in Europe's Southern and Eastern neighbourhood, China, India and Russia on which to define common policy lines. The EU needs a strategy towards the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Maghreb, and it needs to be prepared to react effectively to acute crises in the Middle East.
There are more than plenty of issues of vital interest on which the 27 EU member countries should tune their violins.
Let the EEAS pick up the most urgent and have them debated at official and then ministerial level. That would be a pragmatic way of allowing the EU to speak and act in unison and prevent Europe from declining to global insignificance."