PA head: Ashton walks ‘a very tight uphill rope’

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The respect that leaders harbour for the European Union’s new foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton will be key to her success in the role, Jacques Lafitte, partner and founder of Brussels-based consultants Avisa Partners, told EURACTIV in an interview, predicting that if she is rebuked by her contemporaries on high-profile issues then she will be too afraid of making mistakes to act decisively. 

Jacques Lafitte is a partner and the founder of Avisa Partners, a Brussels-based public affairs consultancy.

He was speaking to Andrew Williams. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The Lisbon Treaty enters into force on 1 December. What changes do you expect in the first weeks or months? What other changes can be expected in the longer term? 

The first concrete application will be the appointment procedure of the new Commission in the coming weeks. I would also expect the European Parliament to immediately exert its rights and increased powers under the new treaty. The newly-established full budget parity between Council and Parliament and the next financial perspective will definitely have an impact already in 2010. 

While the treaty enters into force on 1 December 2009, some of the major provisions will only apply years later. The number of commissioners will not be reduced before 2014 and the new voting rules will only be phased in between 2014 and 2017. The EU will not simply become more efficient, democratic and transparent overnight. This will only happen step-by-step, as the full implementation of the Lisbon Treaty will take almost another decade. 

What are the policy areas where you expect the most change to occur? By contrast, what are the policy areas where you don’t expect much to happen as a result of the treaty’s entry into force? 

The most important changes will certainly come in the policy areas where majority voting is introduced and national vetoes are abolished. No changes are to be expected in the areas where unanimity (and national vetoes) remain the rule. 

Take Justice and Home Affairs (JHA): pressing issues such as asylum, visas and immigration or judicial co-operation will require a common European response and concerted action. I think that even some of the member states which negotiated an opt-out will eventually chose to opt-in. The veto rights held back most of the progress on this policy area in the past. The provisions in the treaty and the European Court of Justice’s new powers to deal with JHA cases will have an immediate and visible impact. 

Energy is another key policy area where I expect changes. The treaty lays the ground for a truly European energy policy, and at least one larger member state has noticed. I expect the EU to keep promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy and work on a strategy to secure supply and diversify energy sources. 

A lot could possibly also happen in the coming years on foreign policy, although this will very much depend on the political will of the member states. 

In a calm context some additional coordination will be established between the Eurogroup members, in line with the very slow progress achieved over the last 10 years, and I would not expect any major change on fiscal policies, which will continue to be the sole competence of member states. 

If however Greece or another Eurogroup member enters a heavy turbulence zone, the game would dramatically change and history may massively accelerate. It is amazing that so few people saw the doctrinal shift when former German Finance Minister Steinbrück suggested earlier this year that a bail out of one Eurogroup member by another was no longer unconceivable. 

Sure, Mr Steinbrück is no longer in charge. But having the Eurogroup replace the IMF inside the euro zone is no longer the dream or nightmare of gurus who have not read the Maastricht Treaty. 

The Lisbon Treaty creates the new role of a double-hatted EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who is also a vice-president of the European Commission. How different will Catherine Ashton’s role be from that of Javier Solana? Should lobbyists regard this function as part of the European Commission or as part of the Council? What are the implications for interest representation? 

Catherine Ashton will benefit from an authority based on the treaty, a right of initiative, a large staff and more money. This is what Solana had been asking for repeatedly in the last ten years. I hope Lady Ashton will make clever use of these new powers. This will of course depend on her standing in the next Commission and on whether she will enjoy the necessary backing from national governments. 

The international events in the next five years will also shape her role and determine opportunities. Unlike Mr Solana, who had been a minister of foreign affairs in Spain and NATO secretary-general before taking up the post in 1999, Lady Ashton has not got a strong foreign affairs profile. Many see this as a drawback, but it could also be regarded as an opportunity. 

Ultimately, the decisive factor will be the respect that member states show for the role of the High Representative. If Lady Ashton gets rebuked two or three times on high-profile issues – on Iran say – we may have to wait another decade before anything serious changes. Conversely, if she is constantly scared of a faux pas and does not take any initiative aside from political correctness, nothing will change either. She walks a very tight uphill rope. 

Lobbyists should of course regard the High Representative as part of the European Commission and as part of the Council. This is what makes the post unique and has strong implications for interest representatives who want to have an influence on the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy [CFSP]. 

How do you expect roles to be shared between the High Representative and the new permanent president of the European Council? Who will determine the definitions of ‘foreign & security policies’ when nothing is written down in the Lisbon Treaty? 

There is a ‘grey zone’ in the Treaty, but I also think that this has been overblown a bit too by some commentators. I don’t necessarily see a conflict between the president and the High Representative. Everything will depend on what Mr. Van Rompuy and Ms. Ashton make of their roles and how events and political constellations will determine them. They seem to have the right personalities for avoiding clashes. 

Many say Mr. Van Rompuy’s choice was a missed opportunity, I tend to believe exactly the opposite. Mr. Van Rompuy may not have the biggest ego of the European Council, but he is the ultimate problem-fixer. Just see how the Belgians miss him already, the Flemish included. Eurosceptics may have opened the champagne too early. 

The High Representative with a right of initiative will have an opportunity to define the EU’s foreign policy. It is in the EU’s interest for Ms. Ashton to seize the opportunity to shape a new CFSP agenda. The risk of being sidelined by powerful member states will remain. But there’s much at stake and Ms. Ashton may hopefully help to bring the EU closer to speaking with a single voice. 

The treaty gives a legal personality to the EU. Should we be thrilled? What will that change? 

With the Lisbon Treaty the ‘three pillars’ are merged and the European Union becomes a legal entity. The simplification is certainly a step forward. So far only the European Community has had a separate legal personality. 

As a legal entity, the EU can sign international treaties and join international organisations. Eurosceptics therefore believe that the EU is now becoming a ‘superstate’, further carving out the sovereignty of nation states. But the EU will not replace the permanent seats of France and the UK in the UN Security Council anytime soon. 

And de facto this is nothing new, as the European Community has joined international organisations like the WTO and the FAO before, and concluded international treaties with third countries. 

At the end of the day – with or without a legal personality – the EU cannot act beyond the competences conferred on it by the member states. 

The treaty gives the European Parliament extra decision-making powers under co-decision, resulting in a more even distribution of influence between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. How will this affect interest groups? Will re-balancing the influence of the main EU institutions require more iteration of policy positions? 

The new decision-making powers which have been conferred on to the Parliament will definitely affect interest groups. The Treaty puts the Parliament almost on equal footing with the Council. So far the Parliament had little say on some key EU policy areas such as JHA, agriculture or regional policy. 

The beefed-up competences of the Parliament in these areas, combined with the full budget parity, will definitely change the way these policies are made. Horse-trading behind closed doors in the Council on agricultural and regional policy issues will no longer work. Decision-making here will become more transparent and more democratic. But the Parliament will need to prepare for more lobbying and strong pressure, especially on the coming agriculture policy reforms. 

Subsidiarity moves from being a principle to become a procedure under Lisbon, in that national parliaments will in theory gain a ‘yellow card’ facility to halt or query Commission initiatives that seem too intrusive. How do you expect this potential blocking power to be exercised by national parliaments? 

The newly-established role for national Parliaments in the treaty will definitely strengthen the subsidiarity principle and democracy in the EU. 

I would expect national parliaments to use this new instrument frequently on a number of issues. In the end there aren’t many European initiatives which do not cause strong political reactions in at least one member state. 

But I don’t expect that parliaments will often block Commission initiatives, as the threshold of one third of all national parliaments is relatively high. 

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