External Action Service marks its first year

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.


The European External Action Service came into being one year ago and its first year will probably not be subject of exalted celebration, says Hans Merket from the European Institute of Ghent University.


Hans Merket is a researcher at the Research Foundation – Flanders at Ghent University's European Institute.

"The European External Action Service started work one month after its inauguration on 1 December 2010. In the run-up to its launch, High Representative Catherine Ashton raised high hopes for the future of EU external action. She lauded the creation of the Union’s new foreign service as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to put into play watchwords as “maximising synergies, avoiding heavy procedures and strengthening our collective impact on the ground”.

This obviously provoked expectations of quick results and, in a way, Baroness Ashton laid the basis for the fierce criticism on her position and the role of the EEAS that followed quickly after the latter’s creation. Looking back on the past year this critical opposition seems not entirely proportionate to the newness of the service and the difficult conditions in which it saw the light of day. The EEAS’ first steps in the EU external landscape were significantly complicated by a devastating financial crisis and unprecedented upheavals in the Arab world.

It is thus too early to judge the EU diplomatic corps on impact and results alone. The focus should  rather be on the progress it makes towards living up to its full potential. In the words of Baroness Ashton in a speech to the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on 23 March 2010, this should be “something that finally brings together all the instruments of our engagement – economic and political instruments, development and crisis management tools – in support of a single political strategy”.

The Council Decision of 26 July 2010 establishing the organisation and functioning of the EEAS includes an important number of external instruments in its toolbox. The EU diplomatic corps plays an important role in the programming cycle of external assistance instruments. Moreover, the inclusion of key CFSP/CSDP implementing bodies bestows the EEAS with important responsibilities in the planning and execution of civilian and military crisis management.

Yet, the EEAS has no final policy responsibility over these instruments and decision-making power rests with the traditional EU external actors, respectively the Commission and the member states represented in the Council.

Moreover, other important fields of external action, such as trade, humanitarian aid or the external aspects of internal policies, are left entirely out of the EEAS’ reach.

The fact that the EU foreign service does not bring together all instruments of the EU’s engagement is not per se problematic. A comprehensive external action strategy that enunciates the interaction between all the different aspects of the EU’s relations with the outside world, allows to exploit synergies, maximise impact, avoid duplication and nullify the risk that different external policies work at cross-purposes.

To date the EU’s frame of reference in this regard is the 2003 European Security Strategy. However, this strategy has a number of important shortcomings. In the first place it is nearly 10 years old and is a rather reactionary document that was drawn up by then High Representative for CFSP, Javier Solana, after the severe divide between EU countries over the US invasion in Iraq. Moreover, as its name suggests, it looks at EU external action through the specific lens of security and gears other policy areas to that end.

Consequently, it is becoming increasingly clear that the EU needs a more balanced and comprehensive strategy adapted to the rapidly changing and interconnected global environment. Council President Herman Van Rompuy has given a new impetus to this strategy debate in the course of 2011. As yet, this has not delivered the desired result as demonstrated by the disappointingly vague European Council conclusions of 16 September on the EU’s relations with its strategic partners.

In October and November the EU came forth with concrete applications of this comprehensive approach with the Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel and the Strategic Framework for the Horn of Africa. While unquestionably very valuable documents it would have contributed to the clarity of the EU’s approach if they were part of a balanced and overarching vision of what the EU wants to achieve with its external action and how it wants to do this.

The EU thus urgently needs to set up an inclusive process to develop a genuine and holistic EU external action strategy. This should consist of an extensive dialogue between the EEAS (with a central role for its Strategic Planning Directorate) and all the services of the Commission, the Council, the member states and the European Parliament that play a direct or indirect role in the external actions of the Union.

In absence thereof the EEAS will continue to struggle with unclear expectations and will remain a foreign service in search of – rather than contributing to – an EU foreign policy."

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