A fresh look at EU Common Foreign and Security Policy

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A fresh look at EU Common Foreign and Security Policy

It is entirely natural since the events of September 11 and the conflict in Afghanistan that there is a heightened awareness of the importance for the European Union of strengthening its own decision making capacity in the field of foreign and security policy. Indeed this is a common theme in recent articles in Challenge Europe by Josef Janning and others. It is also at the heart of the wider debate about the reform of the EU institutions in the context of the 2004 deadline for enlargement.

Europe needs a more effective foreign policy in order to:

  • defend the interests of EU Member States, which none of them is any longer able to do adequately on their own. This goes both for bilateral relations with other major powers and for the defence of common positions in multilateral fora;
  • contribute to a better international order, with less poverty, and more peace, justice, democracy and respect for basic human rights and, last but not least, sustainable development.

The EU has demonstrated that it is able to successfully defend European interests whenever it gets its act together. Successive WTO negotiations bear as much witness to this strength as the successful outcome of the negotiations on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. In future, the EU should draw on this positive experience in other fields of external relations.

A huge foreign policy machinery with insufficient output

Jointly, the EU 25 dispose by far of the biggest foreign policy machinery on earth. Each of the Member States maintain between 40 and 220 diplomatic missions inside and outside the EU. In addition, the EU Commission runs 100 odd diplomatic missions. Jointly the EU 25 afford the luxury of almost 3000 diplomatic missions with a total number of close to 30.000 diplomats. The USA needs less than one tenth of the missions and half of the diplomatic staff in order to “impose” its foreign policy views on the rest of the world.

The European machinery is costly and ineffective. For all EU related topics, it requires a considerable and growing “coordination” effort among Member States. Coordination will become even more difficult and time-consuming with 25+ Member States, whether in Brussels or in capitals around the world. Short of merging all diplomatic missions into “EU missions” – which Member States would be reticent even to consider in the short and medium term – it will be necessary to simplify the coordination and representation mechanisms.

The European machinery lacks effectiveness because there is not enough strategic input in the design and implementation of a common European foreign policy. The EU deploys too many diplomats in the field and not enough foreign policy shapers at the centre. European foreign policy consists of two separate strands – national and European (which by virtue of the EU Treaty is supposed to be “common”). Most of the Member States’ diplomatic energy is spent on promoting “national interests”, especially in the commercial, cultural and foreign aid fields.

The common European strand touches on the more political and strategic aspects of foreign relations, where the combined clout of the EU matters: trade policy, human rights, governance, security, European technology projects, common positions in the UN and other multilateral fora. In these areas the EU dimension clearly dominates over national relations. This also goes for contractual relations with most third countries: the basic relationship between third countries and EU member countries is usually through EU Treaties.

Over time, the number and importance of issues falling under the common European strand have been growing, with an increasing need for more EU coordination and common demarches. Bilateral relations (trade promotion, culture and – for th e time being – also aid) can be largely left to Member States continuing to act on their own, provided bilateral action by Member States does not foil the common EU interest.

Three conclusions may be drawn from this very rapid overview:

The conduct of European external relations will, for a long time to come, be marked by the co-existence of “bilateral” and “EU” relations. The EU will not have the monopoly of European external relations and it should not strive for it. (Just as federal EU member countries like Belgium let their regional states pursue their own” external relations”).

The subsidiarity principle should also apply to foreign policy. The EU should only integrate those parts of external relations where deployment of common positions, procedures and resources is necessary in the interest of effectiveness. In these areas, the EU will need a unified approach, efficient decision making procedures, a clear command and communication structure between the centre and the periphery and effective control of policy implementation.

Cost considerations will make it increasingly more difficult for smaller member countries to maintain a comprehensive network of diplomatic representations throughout the world. They will be obliged to look for means of rationalisation, e.g. by bundling their resources, missions etc. with their closest neighbours.

More effectiveness requires Treaty changes

First, foreign policy provisions are presently scattered throughout the EU Treaty (19 articles), and the EC Treaty (13 articles concerning trade policy, development cooperation, relations with the UN, OECD, Council of Europe and decision making rules.). As part of the consolidation of the treaties into a single EU constitutional document, these provisions need to be revised and simplified. The provisions laid down in the EU Treaty should be substantially shortened.

Second, Qualified Majority Voting is presently foreseen only for decisions in the field of trade policy and implementation of common strategies or positions. In the future, it should be possible to take all decisions relating to common foreign policy (with the exception of ESDP) by qualified majority. This is a matter of effectiveness and speed of foreign policy decisions. An EU 25 cannot afford its capacity of action to be blocked by the veto of individual Member States. “Constructive abstention”, as provided for by Art. 23 of the EU Treaty, will not do in the long term.

Third, qualified majority voting supposes decisions to be professionally prepared by an institution that defines the common EU interest. In the longer term this can only be the Commission, provided it is endowed with the necessary foreign policy expertise. The revised Treaty should therefore stipulate that EU foreign policy actions could be decided by QMV on proposals from the Commission, as is the case in all other EU policy areas. In the absence of a Commission proposal, Council decisions will require consensus.

Fourth, the role of the Commission in CFSP needs to be strengthened. To that end, the Commission member responsible for external relations should also act as the High Representative for CFSP. (As a corollary, the CFSP staff would also be transferred to the Commission).

Fifth, the role of the European Parliament should equally be strengthened. In a democratic Union, it is not sufficient to inform and consult the EP on the “principal aspects and fundamental choices” of CFSP. Like any national parliament, the EP should become more fully involved in CFSP decision-making and in monitoring its implementation. The most effective way to achieve a bigger role for the EP would be by giving the EP Foreign and Security Policy Committee a special status: no major act of foreign and security policy should be taken without its approval. (This Committee should assume a role similar to that being played by the powerful Foreign Rel ations Committee of the US Senate). In this way, more democratic legitimacy can be conferred on CFSP, while allowing for the necessary confidentiality.

Sixth, Treaties concluded by the EU should, as a rule, no longer require ratification by 25 national parliaments. Ratification by the EP should suffice. Only Treaties that specifically assign to Member States specific commitments for national implementation, like the Kyoto Protocol, should continue to undergo the cumbersome and time-consuming process of national ratifications.

More effectiveness requires above all a series of procedural reforms

The EU needs a specialised “Foreign Affairs” Council

The “General Affairs Council” should no longer deal with external relations, which should be in charge of overall EU coordination. Since the creation of the “Political and Security Committee”, this specialisation exists at the level of Permanent Representatives. It should also be introduced at ministerial level. Indeed, foreign and security policy will absorb more and more of the EU’s attention and energy. It is impossible for foreign ministers of Member States to perform three equally demanding jobs in parallel: directing national foreign policy, shaping EU foreign policy, coordinating EU policy across the board. Better and more effective EU foreign policy requires more presence and focus by national foreign ministers.

EU foreign policy requires more continuity

It is not productive to change the EU foreign policy teams every six months as part of the rotating presidency. For foreign ministers of small member countries, which make up the majority in the Union, the six-months presidency is a truly super-human burden, as one foreign minister has recently complained after a particularly stressful presidency. Foreign ministers should elect their “president” for a period of 2-3 years. This will have a positive impact on the quality of CFSP:

  • It will allow the president to seriously involve him/herself in the shaping of CFSP;
  • It will enable him/her to establish a more stable and trustful working relationship with the Commission and the EP, which is essential for the quality of the future CFSP;
  • He/she will have an opportunity to establish closer links with the main players and interlocutors in other parts of the world and can share the tough travel assignments with the High Representative.

The practice of Troika missions should be discontinued

It has never been a very successful instrument of CFSP. The end of the rotating presidency in external affairs should, as a logical corollary, put an end to the Troika practice. In future, the Chairman of the Foreign Policy Council and the High Representative for CFSP (= external Commissioner) will share the burden of external representation among themselves.

Implementation of EU foreign policy requires a functioning chain of command

Decisions taken in Brussels must be communicated/ implemented sur place, in 200 odd countries, international conferences, at the UN etc. The Commission Delegations should therefore be transformed into fully-fledged EU Embassies, in charge of implementing EU policies, messages, demarches, policy directives in the countries and fora at which they aim. This will, of course, require appropriate staffing levels and qualified diplomatic ambassadors and personnel.

In the last two years, the High Representative for CFSP has increasingly relied on Commission Delegations as vehicles for the implementation of EU foreign policy. What has started to become an informal practice should be made the established rule. The Embassies of Member States in third countries will thus be in a position to concentrate exclusively on their bilateral functions. They will not need to get involved in the impossible mission of “coordination sur place”. Coordination will normally take place in Brussels as part o f the decision making process. Places like New York that require constant sur place coordination are, of course an exception. The EU ambassador will assume that charge. Moreover, EU ambassadors will, of course, be responsible for regularly briefing their colleagues from Member States on main CFSP developments.

In international institutions EU Member States should, as a matter of principle, speak with one voice

The exception would be for matters that clearly fall outside EU competence (e.g. at UNESCO). IMF and World Bank are prime examples of where the EU fails to impose its “print” on policies and decisions, because Member States do not or insufficiently coordinate their positions. EU Ambassadors to international institutions should be responsible for enforcing this new practice, either by calling for coordination in Brussels (by the Foreign Policy or the Finance Council) or by defining the EU position sur place.

The EU should establish a “European School of Diplomacy”

It should have a dual function: to organise a two-year master course in diplomacy for university graduates interested in pursuing an international career and organise short-term (two week to three month) training courses for diplomats from Member States and EU institutions. Such an institution should help to create an elite of international civil servants and a “European esprit de corps” among European diplomats and civil servants in the field of external relations.

Eberhard Rheinis a former official with the European Commission. He is now a Senior Advisor to The European Policy Centre.

For more in-depth analysis, see The European Policy Centre’s website:

A fresh look at EU Common Foreign and Security Policy.  

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