There is no real ‘European foreign policy’, says former EU diplomat

Pierre Vimont in Bratislava. [Pavol Szalai]

The EU does not have a real ‘European foreign policy’ because every country works on its own and member states do not want to give full responsibility to the EU’s High Representative, a former senior French and EU diplomat told EURACTIV Slovakia in an interview.

Pierre Vimont, who helped launch the EU’s External Action Service, also said France cannot give up its UN Security Council seat for the sake of having a single EU seat “for legal and political reasons”.

Pierre Vimont is a former French ambassador and analyst. From 2010 to 2015 he worked to launch the European External Action Service (EEAS) as its first Secretary-General. Today, he is a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe. He talked to EURACTIV Slovakia’s Senior Editor Pavol Szalai.

How do you judge the work of the EEAS and especially the activities of High Representative Federica Mogherini?

Like Cathy Ashton, Federica Mogherini did a lot for the progress of European diplomacy. She has brought an added value especially for the coordination with the European Commission which, too, holds diplomatic instruments – trade policy, humanitarian and development aid.

One of the objectives of the Lisbon Treaty and the establishment of EEAS was to create a strategic frame for these instruments. In this enterprise, Mogherini has succeeded not only by launching the EU Global Strategy in 2016, but also in the everyday work and coordination meetings with other Commissioners and services. She has been very active and travelled around the world. In defence and security, she has attempted to improve the EU’s cooperation with NATO. She has progressed a lot.

The problem which hasn’t been solved yet is that states play it a bit of “every man for himself”. We need to convince states to increasingly share their foreign policy instruments and influence for the benefit of the EU.

Would France be ready to provide its seat in the UN Security Council for the EU – make it an EU seat?

It’s an interesting idea which is discussed a lot in the media and political circles. The case seems strong. However, the idea lacks any legal sense. EU is not a UN member, only an observer in the UN General Assembly. It’s impossible from a legal and political viewpoint. If France gave its seat to the EU, other UN members would say: “That’s nice, but since we cannot give it to the EU, we will give it to a country in Latin America or the Near East”. But we can look into what Europeans can do to speak in the UN Security Council with one voice.

Has the French President made a progress in the discussion with other member states?

Emmanuel Macron has always agreed. But we have never gone into the details. In the Lisbon Treaty, there is a whole article on how the two permanent members of the UN Security Council (France and United Kingdom) have to take fully into account other member states’ positions, coordinate with them etc. Maybe we could push this further, so that France would, on one hand, represent all the others and on the other, consult with them in order to convince them of some French positions. It should be a two-way street.

Make the European foreign policy more French?

Make the European policy more French and make the French foreign policy more European. It would be interesting. But something is already happening. I have recently talked to the chief of the EU’s delegation to the UN. He regularly meets permanent members of the UN Security Council, once a month, sometimes up to once a week. Maybe one day it will be decided the EU should be considered a state, become a full UN member and have a seat in the UN Security Council. Now, however, it would be absurd.

During the Venezuela crisis, some EU member states including Slovakia blocked a common European approach. Could the qualified majority voting (QMV) be put in place for foreign affairs in the next five years?

Again, European treaties allow it, but it is never used. The real question is: Can member states finally talk frankly, decide to take foreign policy seriously and have a real European foreign policy? For the moment, they don’t because everybody launches their own initiatives without informing others and because they don’t want to give full responsibility to the High Representative.

Actually, I have the feeling that we have backtracked compared to the era of Javier Solana and sometimes Cathy Ashton. Member states allowed Ashton to pilot the Kosovo-Serbia file and the Iran nuclear deal. Today, it is quite complicated as shown by the cases of Syria and Libya. Mogherini was not entrusted with as much responsibility as Solana and in some aspects Ashton. Member states have not fully reflected the foreign policy challenges.

Do you find the qualified majority voting unnecessary for EU foreign policy?

It has one advantage: it can serve as means to exert pressure. The argument that if we don’t achieve consensus, we will pass to the QMV and decide, is often a way to force countries to come back to the negotiating table.

In the case of relocation scheme for asylum seekers, no consensus was found and QMV was applied. The result is, however, that the scheme has never been applied, because the Visegrad countries found their national interests were at stake. They said they would not apply the decision.

The scheme was applied and asylum seekers were relocated.

Some of them. The Visegrad countries haven’t done much. In fact, most counties did not reach the defined quotas. But let’s stay with the foreign policy. If tomorrow you pass to the QMV on Libya and – I am making up – you propose to cut contacts with Marshal Khalifa Haftar and support only the government in Tripoli, two or three countries including France will not agree. “It’s a pity,” you will say, “they are a minority, we are moving ahead.” But you wouldn’t change a lot. France would continue to maintain contacts with Haftar.

Between the first and the second round of the French presidential election in 2017, you wrote with other diplomats in Le Figaro that Macron’s approach is “the only one that can allow us to achieve the (…) objective which must be followed by our diplomacy: resume the dynamic role in the European affairs and increase our capacity to weigh in on global affairs.” Does Macron weigh in?

I think he does. Is he successful? That’s a different question. A lot of us signed this appeal and many – like me – usually don’t sign the likes of it. Nevertheless, we found that the presidential election was a key, almost existential moment for the future of the French diplomacy given the then programme of Marine Le Pen to leave the eurozone and the EU. Above all, we wanted to say that one of the candidates had dangerous opinions for French diplomacy, while the other one was more in line with what we wanted.

Macron has had a lot of ambitions, he has launched many initiatives. The method is sometimes questionable. Actually, that’s often the case with French leaders; we don’t listen sufficiently to the others, we don’t take enough into account their opinions. We complain others lack ideas. Then France comes up with a proposal and expects everybody will follow suit. Many misunderstandings arise. France has always had this problem.

A certain French arrogance?

The relations are complicated and complex. France is used to expecting everybody will follow it. Others are accustomed to criticizing France for proposing something all the time. But when it stops speaking, everybody starts asking why Paris is not proposing anything anymore. The result is that progress takes a lot of time. Macron has run into the same difficulties.

Isn’t Macron today abandoned with his vision of a deepened European integration?

I don’t think so. Two days after the European elections and before the Summit dinner, Macron met two Socialist prime ministers, from Portugal and Spain. During the dinner, he met two Liberal prime ministers of the Netherlands and Belgium.

They are his principal allies?

They are new allies. It would be good if his allies also came from Central and Eastern Europe. From among the prime ministers of the Baltics, maybe from Slovakia. The new alliances which are popping up here and there need to be followed closely. They can bring a new, interesting game in town. Maybe it is also about a generational change. All the leaders I mentioned are young and quite successful in elections. They can have a common vision of Europe, although they are not in the same political family.

The German government is weakened. It is reluctant towards Macron’s plans.

People like me who have been in European diplomacy for over 30 years can see that the Franco-German relationship has never been easy. In hindsight, it is said that the grand époque of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand, or Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt is over. Yet, in the beginning, it has always been difficult. I remember that when Kohl took office, he and Mitterand did not talk much. The start of the Gerhard Schröder – Jacques Chirac relationship was very bad. I participated in the Nice Treaty negotiations. The two men weren’t speaking to each other at all. Progressively they developed a personal relationship and eventually became real friends. The Franco-German relationship has never been easy because it is based on contradictory interests.

Of course. But in the past, both countries managed to make great leaps in the integration, for example launch the Euro.

They managed thanks to mutual concessions. Today, the problem is to find a negotiation method allowing everyone to make concessions in the interest of common progress while they can protect the bulk of their interests. The only thing that bothers me today in the Franco-German relationship is that we lost this method. On both sides of the Rhine, they think they are right and others are wrong. We will not get anywhere like this. We have to start with a simple principle: the duty to agree. Then we will keep meeting until we reach an agreement. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and his German colleague do it quite well.

Can the Visegrad Group play a constructive role in the EU?

Of course, it even should. Like everybody else. […]  But sometimes the V4 gives the feeling that it can only oppose and not propose. V4 can be useful in introducing its own vision of the European project or of a particular file.

Migration is perhaps the most contentious issue today. The V4 says it doesn’t want the relocation scheme and is reluctant to open up borders to migrants. But what exactly is the position of the V4 countries? Are they ready to give up on the basic principle of international law, the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, stating that people drowning in the sea must be saved? Do they agree with respecting the basic Schengen principle of free movement of persons?

I would like to know the V4 countries’ position on asylum law, if they don’t question it and if we can work together on improving it. Should we head towards the harmonisation of the asylum law? I don’t use terms like ‘solidarity’ and ‘responsibility’ deliberately.

Is it not clear if the Hungarian and Polish governments reject deeper integration in these areas?

Yes and no. If today Hungary finds itself with secondary migration flows on its shoulders, with asylum seekers who have been rejected this right in Germany or another country, will it not want a bit more integration allowing it to process asylum requests more efficiently? Maybe we can find more agreement on these specific issues than it is generally thought.

You told me before this interview that Western Europe should listen more to Eastern Europe. But aren’t countries like Hungary so little comprehensible because they are shouting so loud?

They are shouting loud. I can tell from my own experience that these leaders shout loud in their home countries, but one can hear them much less when they come to the European Council in Brussels. They speak much less. The public declarations made by Viktor Orbán in Hungary are not repeated at the end of the European Council. It’s a pity. These leaders should frankly say what they think before their European partners. It happened once or twice, but not as often as it seems. It would be interesting if European leaders discussed frankly their different opinions, found out what really separates them and from there on attempted to build a new migration or other policy. If everyone stays in their corner and only criticizes others, we will not make progress. The risk is a more differentiated Europe…

…a mini-Schengen, for example…

…a mini-Schengen, a mini-defence, until eventually, some states will play in the second league. One day they will wake up and find out they are no longer in the first league. We need to avoid it. I am not against some going further than others. But it should be agreed by everyone. I don’t like the current conditionality discussion either: You refuse to take migrants in, I will reduce your EU funds. This is not a good method.

It has been used by Emmanuel Macron.

By Angela Merkel, too. Anyways, certain German politicians speak like that. But it would mean introducing a negative spirit in the European project.

You are not in favour of sanctions?

Maybe I am naïve, but we need to avoid sanctions as long as possible. When you start using conditionality, a stick, a sanction, the dialogue will get interrupted. But we have to talk, otherwise, we will destroy the whole European project.

Hasn’t the threat of sanctions against Poland proven as efficient in the area of rule of law?

Article 7 is now blocked. Court proceedings are a more efficient way, which was eventually chosen by the European Commission. It referred the case of judiciary independence to the EU Court of Justice. The Court ruled that the Polish draft law was not in accordance with the principles of the European law. And the Polish government accepted the ruling.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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