External Action Service Review: Why it is important

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

If the real added value of the EU as a global actor is in developing holistic approaches to international affairs which benefit from a very broad range of tools, the people involved need to be able to work together well, write Rosa Balfour and Kristi Rak.

Rosa Balfour (European Policy Centre, Brussels) and Kristi Raik (Finnish Institute for International Affairs, Helsinki) are the authors of 'Equipping the EU for the 21st Century and of The European External Action Service and National Diplomacies'.

"Two years since its creation, the European External Action Service (EEAS), supposedly the EU’s foreign policy engine, is about to be reviewed. Some will question: ‘Again?’ and work against the risk that the review opens a Pandora’s box of requests to change nitty gritty institutional issues.

Others will say: ‘At last!’, arguing that the EEAS experiment has been a failure and needs a fundamental rethink. A middle way between these two positions may not inspire political battles but would be wise.

The 2013 Review gives the EU the opportunity to put its foreign policy house in order and the High Representative (HR), Catherine Ashton, to leave a positive legacy for her successor. Indeed, the timing of the review was precisely thought to prepare for the future of institutions whose leadership will change in 2014.

There are a number of areas to be addressed. Many appear to be bureaucratic issues, such as the relationship between the top management of the EEAS, the High Representative and her Cabinet, and the rest of the Service.

The relations within and between the components of the EEAS and the other institutions, especially in crisis management, external assistance, humanitarian aid, and cross-cutting fields too are an issue.

This is not just about organigrammes. The broader political issues these internal matters raise include accountability, transparency, and functionality: who is responsible for what? What is the hierarchy? How are relations with the Commission, the Council, the Parliament, the member states managed? In short, is the current structure the best to manage the diverse challenges that the EEAS has met in these two years?

Other matters may seem trivial to non-insiders. These relate to staffing policies, the balance of officials coming from the member states, gender balance, staff rotation between Brussels, the European capitals and the Delegations around the world.

Yet much of the bad press the EEAS has received is a consequence of the low staff morale during the phase of merging officials from the Commission, the Council and national diplomacies.

If these highly qualified people cannot work well together, it is not possible for the EU to develop joined-up policies which bring together competences in foreign policy with those in energy, migration, climate change, and the special knowledge and diplomatic tradition developed in each member state.

If the real added value of the EEAS and of the EU as a global actor is in developing holistic approaches to international affairs which benefit from a very broad range of tools – from external aid to CSDP missions to train judges and police forces – the people involved need to be able to work together well.

Much of the focus will be on giving the HR/VP one or more deputies who can take over tasks of an overcrowded agenda, bearing in mind the unique role of the HR who has to chair the foreign ministers, head the EEAS and represent the EU for foreign policy, capitalise on her position in the Commission, and relate to the European Parliament.

Should the deputy be able to do all this in the HR’s absence? Or should these tasks be divided up between different deputies? Whatever decision will be made on this and all other organisational matters, a recognition that there is no ideal bureaucratic model may help tone down expectations and find realistically achievable solutions.

Alongside the details of the changes that may be brought to the Service, there is another, equally important dynamic: the process that the review entails. The institutions and member states have only just started to mobilise for it.

Germany has presented a non-paper with suggestions, the European Parliament is preparing a resolution, think tanks have published papers with ideas for action. The Foreign Ministers will meet informally in the second half of March to share some ideas.

It would be good if they then discussed these ideas with their ministries and even national parliaments. If lack of vision and strategy is one of the complaints about EU foreign policy, making the review process more participatory could inject a new dynamism into the debate.

After all, it might be time to ask why EU foreign policy is important and to refresh member states’ commitment to it.

The EEAS Review is not just an opportunity for Catherine Ashton to accomplish a success by creating the EU’s foreign policy machinery and making it work. It is also the chance to broaden the debate within Europe on the future of Europe’s role in the world."

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