Ten years CFSP: Closing the capability – Expectations gap

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

Ten years CFSP: Closing the capability – Expectations gap

Summary and Recommendations

After a slow start in very difficult circumstances the EU’s CFSP has made steady progress. Increasingly the EU has common positions on most external issues but some important differences remain largely regarding the use of military power (Iraq).

The CFSP machinery is highly bureaucratic with a large number of actors. There is a need for a leaner machine and an end to divisions of competence that inevitably lead to turf wars.

The European public is strongly supportive of a strengthened CFSP and ESDP. Governments have failed to tap this support.

European leaders recognise the need for CFSP reform (Laeken) but there are wide differences on the path to take and a lack of real political will. EU needs a top-down and a bottom-up approach.

There should be a timetable for merging Solana/Patten functions. Interim solution could be special status for High Representative allowing him to attend Commission meetings. He should also chair External Affairs Council meetings. Rotating presidency would have no representational role in CFSP. Commission should gradually assume external representational role in all fora, with priority international economic institutions.

Budget for CFSP should be tripled. EU should have legal personality.

There should be much greater use of shared facilities and joint reporting – essential in light of enlargement.

Need to strengthen parliamentary oversight (EP and national) of CFSP by introducing six-monthly Europe-wide debates on foreign and security policy involving media and NGOs.

ESDP headline targets must be met. Defence ministers should have regular meetings. Important to carry out successfully first mission (Amber Fox). Need to scrap restrictions on single market in arms industry and increase sharing of shrinking defence resources.


If there is one area where European elites and the public agree it is that there should be “more Europe” in foreign and security policy. Most Europeans seem to understand that in a rapidly changing international environment (increasing globalisation, US unilateralism, new security threats) it is more urgent than ever that the EU speaks with one voice and acts together in external relations. Opinion polls throughout the member states have consistently shown over 70% in favour of a stronger and more effective common foreign and security policy (CFSP). Yet governments seem incapable of harnessing this support to agree on reforms that would make genuine improvements to the CFSP established over ten years ago at Maastricht. The CFSP had a difficult first decade starting with a baptism of fire in the Balkans. After Amsterdam, there were improvements to its procedures and Javier Solana became the new, smiling face of European diplomacy. Meanwhile the EU gradually began to play a more assertive global and regional role learning to use its economic clout for political purposes. Its military weaknesses, brutally exposed in the Kosovo campaign, accelerated moves towards an EU rapid reaction force (RRF). More recently, the EU has become the principal stabilising actor in the Balkans, a role it has played for some time in central and eastern Europe, and is playing a major role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. There is also wide concern at the unilateral trends in US foreign policy and the implications of the US national strategy review. Despite this increased activism, there remains a considerable gap between the expectations of the public, and Europe’s partners, and the capabilities of the Union. Yet positions in the Convention regarding reform of the CFSP remain far apart and at this stage it is difficult to foresee agreement at the IGC to introduce radical reforms.

The Record

The CFSP could hardly have been launched at a less auspicious moment. As Yugoslavia disintegrated into civil war, there were some who forecast that ‘the hour of Europe’ had arrived. But far from the EU being regarded as the strong actor that could bang heads together and bring peace to the warring factions in Yugoslavia, it was regarded as weak and divided, both in the Balkans and in Washington. The whole Balkan experience, and Kosovo in particular, was a tough learning experience for the EU but it did have some positive results. First, it demonstrated to member states the futility of trying to pursue an independent policy in the Balkans (and elsewhere). After a messy ten years involvement together in the Balkans, the EU now has a common policy towards the region encompassing foreign, trade and development policies wrapped up in the Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAAs). The EU has also developed common positions towards many other regions including Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East. Second, the Kosovo experience led directly to the Anglo-French St Malo proposals to establish a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). Third, the EU has learned to use a judicious mix of carrots and sticks to ensure the spread of its norms, whether political or economic, throughout the continent and now has an extensive web of agreements covering practically all its neighbours from Morocco to Russia.

The EU, however, has not been able to build a consensus in all areas. There have been disputes, for example, over how to respond to violations of human rights in third countries and how to deal with Iraq. But overall the trend has been towards greater EU cohesion in its external policies towards the rest of the world. The same can be said for EU support for the multilateral institutions where the EU is the largest contributor to the UN budget, the largest provider of development assistance and the strongest proponent of the WTO Doha Development Agenda. The EU has taken a leading role in supporting the Kyoto protocol, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and a range of arms control treaties, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), rejected by the US. These developments have led to the EU playing an important leadership role on many global issues.

There has also been progress on the defence front and on other headline goal targets.

At the Cologne and Helsinki European Councils, decisions were taken to ensure that the EU developed a 60,000 strong rapid reaction force (RRF) by the end of 2003 capable of deployment within 60 days and sustainable in the field for a year. The RRF would essentially carry out the so-called Petersberg tasks (i.e. humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping and crisis management including peacemaking) explicitly mentioned in the Treaty. The initial US reservations on ESDP have diminished if not disappeared and there has been a good start to practical o cooperation between the EU and NATO, especially in the Balkans. Although the Belgian presidency declared ESDP operational in December 2001, there remain a number of problems to be resolved including meeting the capability requirements and resolving Greek-Turkish disputes over ESDP’s role in the Aegean.

Perhaps of equal importance, the EU has been making impressive progress in establishing a range of instruments in the areas of conflict prevention and dealing with ‘failed states’. The EU has established ‘headline goals’ to provide police and civilian administration capability to assist in the reconstruction of states following conflict. The European Union Police Mission (EUPM), due to take over in Bosnia from the UN in January 2003, should have 5,000 officers ready by that date, with the ability to deploy 1,000 within 30 days. There is also a 300 strong EU judicial ‘headline goal’ in terms of providing judges for conflict-torn societies.

The Brussels Machinery

The CFSP mach inery created at Maastricht, which was based largely on the previous European Political Cooperation structures, has always been overly bureaucratic. The creation of a separate inter-governmental ‘pillar’ for CFSP also led to numerous squabbles over issues of competence. Another problem is the sheer number of actors involved in CFSP; the Member States, the Council, the High Representative, the Special Representatives, the Commission, the Parliament, each with their bureaucracies, interests and ambitions. Some improvements have been made as a result of Amsterdam, notably Solana’s appointment and a new institution to guide and oil the CFSP machinery. While the political oversight via the European Council and the renamed General Affairs and External Relations Council remains unchanged, the motor running the CFSP has been greatly enhanced by the recent establishment of the Brussels based Political and Security Committee (PSC), known more frequently by its French acronym (COPS). The PSC, which has a remit to cover all aspects of CFSP including defence issues, is the hub around which the CFSP revolves and since its creation there has been a greater urgency and an improved capacity to respond swiftly to crises situations. Unlike the old Political Committee, composed of senior officials who travelled to Brussels once a month for meetings, the PSC is active on a daily basis.

Since Amsterdam, the Council’s role has increased with Javier Solana becoming an increasingly visible figure of European diplomacy. The Treaty was deliberately vague on the responsibilities of the High Representative, stating that he “shall assist the Presidency”. Inevitably in such a situation much depends on the personality of the office-holder. Most observers consider that the EU is fortunate in having someone of Solana’s stature as the first ‘Mr CFSP’ even if he sometimes ruffles Presidency feathers. Yet Solana operates with woefully inadequate resources, in terms of staff and money. The Council may decide policy but it provides precious few resources for CFSP (the 2002 budget was a mere 30 million). It is the Commission that has the manpower and finance; and a shared right of initiative that to the regret of many has never been used. Despite the good relations between the two central figures (Solana and Patten) this situation inevitably leads to some tension and inefficiency in the operation of CFSP. The situation is further confused by the six-monthly rotating Presidency, often setting its own (national) priorities. When the Presidency was established it was never intended that it should have an external representational role; rather its role was seen as organising and chairing meetings. The devotion to unanimity is a further handicap to swift decision-making and without change the situation can only worsen after enlargement. A plethora of different legal bases for external action in the CFSP, development, trade and monetary fields further complicates the picture, as does the fact that the EU itself has no clear legal personality.


It is not easy to find accepted measures to judge the EU’s performance in CFSP. Assessments will vary whether one is looking at the CFSP from the perspective of the Commission, Council, Parliament, the Member States, third countries or the general public. Bosnian and Kosovo Moslems may have very different views of the EU’s role in the Balkans. Like other policy areas, the CFSP reflects the ‘multiple realities’ that make up the EU. But given the sensitive nature of foreign and security policy, there are additional tensions between the Member States (not just between large and small), between the institutions, and between the CFSP machinery and the growing influence of the NGO world. The CFSP is also a moving target. One week’s failure to prevent the outbreak of conflict in FYROM may lead to next week’s success in arranging a cease-fire. Furthermore, many successes in the field of conflict prevention often pass unnoticed. As mentioned above, it is also difficult if not impossible to isolate the CFSP from other external policies of the EU. Projecting stability may be achieved as much by association agreements and the prospect of membership, liberal trade policies and generous development assistance, contributing to improved living standards, than by any number of CFSP declarations, ‘joint actions’, ‘common positions’ or ‘common strategies.’

Both Solana and Patten have been bullish about the recent record. According to Solana the progress in the past three years, especially in the Balkans, “has been quite extraordinary”. Patten agrees, arguing that “there has been a real change of gear” with foreign policy at last properly linked to the institutions which manage the instruments. But although these links now exist, many observers consider that there are still too many cooks in the kitchen. Turf disputes are not uncommon between the various actors involved in the EU’s external affairs. Certainly the European Council accepted in the Laeken declaration that there were several deficiencies in CFSP that should be remedied.

The Future

There is no shortage of ideas to strengthen the CFSP, to make it more effective, coherent, consistent and to enhance the EU’s role on the world stage. These ideas range from a full-scale ‘communitarisation’ of foreign policy to modest tinkering of the machinery. Many proposals can only be viewed as part of the wider debate on institutional issues now under discussion at the Convention. These include the proposal to have an elected President of the European Council and the question of a democratic mandate for the Commission.  

One Voice: A number of questions have already been posed by the Convention including what lessons could be drawn from the relative effectiveness of the Community’s external trade policy? The answer is not difficult. When the Union speaks with one voice in bilateral or multilateral trade negotiations then it is a powerful voice representing 350 million citizens with a combined GDP roughly similar to that of the US. The Union could be as effective in other policy areas if it wanted to, simply by providing for a single representation. Reflecting on his own experience, Pascal Lamy has proposed that the Commission be given a mandate to negotiate and represent the Union in all international economic fora. Despite the advent of the euro there is still no EU seat or common EU voice at IMF or World Bank meetings. Indeed the situation at these and other international economic meetings is extremely confusing in terms of ‘who speaks for the EU?’ There is certainly a strong case for granting the Commission this role but an interim solution would at least provide for more debate and prior consultation between Member States in advance of international meetings.

The long-term aim should be for the Commission to speak under a similar mandate in the CFSP field. Another interim solution might be for the High Representative (eventually merged with the External Relations Commissioner?) to speak and negotiate for the EU where there was an agreed policy or common strategy. Member States would thus continue to enjoy bilateral relations with third countries but they would not discuss EU policy towards Russia, for example, in areas of agreed EU policy eg energy, JHA.

Solana/Patten Merger: The question of merging the Solana/Patten functions is one of the most discussed proposals to strengthen the CFSP and has been advocated by the European Commission and many think tanks. Some argue that the merger should take place within the Council, others, including Prodi, advocate a merger within the Commission. The main argument for such a merger is that it would improve coherence and visibility. The argument against is that it would put too much power in the hands of one person (and lead to him further undermining the opportunities for national foreign ministers to shine). Much will depend on whether the Convention (and later the IGC ) accepts the proposal for an augmented European Council with its own president for a two and a half or five year period. Clearly this supremo would overshadow Mr CFSP wherever he was located. There was strong opposition to this idea, however, when first discussed at the Seville European Council. Certainly it is difficult to see the necessity of having a second ‘European President’ when there already exists a position reserved for a former prime minister, the President of the Commission. A Solana/Patten merger, therefore, should take place within the Commission. If a step too far for some Member States now, it should be the aim over a ten year period. The advantages – coherence, consistency, continuity- of having a single European telephone number would be considerable.

Increased Cooperation: Meanwhile, there is considerable scope for member states and Commission delegations to co-operate more effectively in third countries. Too often Member States, especially in major third countries, pay lip service to EU coordination and cooperation. Jointly the EU and the Member States dispose by far the largest diplomatic machinery in the world. With over 2,000 diplomatic missions and more than 20,000 diplomats, the EU has ten times more missions and three times more personnel at its disposal than the US. But as Solana has dryly remarked, it is not obvious that the EU is ten times more effective than the US in foreign policy. For the foreseeable future, bilateral and EU foreign policy will continue to coexist but there will be pressure, especially after enlargement, to increase sharing of premises and other facilities as well as more joint reporting. If foreign ministries do not ask the question, finance ministries will certainly ask why there needs to be 25 separate EU Member State missions, plus a Commission delegation, in countries x, y and z, when the EU is supposed to operate a CFSP. With moves to establish a common EU judicial space there could also be a common EU visa provided by a lead member state in third countries.

There is also much that could be done to improve co-operation between Council and Commission, including sharing of facilities and resources. For example, a joint planning staff and a joint spokesman would make sense. Solana and Patten could also make joint appearances before the Parliament. There should be increased sharing of intelligence and a greater exchange of diplomats and officials between the Member States and the EU institutions. The time is overdue for the establishment of a European diplomatic academy.

Increased Budget: A major increase in the CFSP budget is also necessary if the EU is to make any progress towards fulfilling its global ambitions. The CFSP budget was a very modest 30 million in 2002. This needs to be tripled by 2005. At the same time, there needs to be clarity as to responsibility for different budget lines. Too much time is still wasted on inter-institutional squabbles over financing of operations such as de-mining in the Balkans or paying for the police mission in Bosnia.

Reformed GAC: For some time there have been calls to split the General Affairs Council (GAC) into two bodies, one being devoted solely to foreign and security policy. The Seville European Council agreed a compromise whereby the GAC would be renamed General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC!) thus allowing Member States to send two ministers to participate in the proceedings. It will take time to judge whether this leads to a real change in operating procedures. The EU certainly needs a forum for foreign (and defence) ministers to debate strategy and decide on policy. It is important that they can do this in a calm atmosphere without worrying about deputy prime ministers waiting in the back row to join the table for discussion on general affairs. The question of establishing a Defence Council remains open. At a minimum there should be quarterly meetings of EU defence ministers, chaired by the High Representative, to monitor progress on ESDP, to decide on priorities and, in joint meetings with their foreign minister colleagues, to debate strategic issues.

Rotating Presidency: There has been much debate about ending the six monthly rotating presidency. At present, each presidency sets its own priorities, often in response to domestic concerns. The Swedes emphasise the Baltic region, the Belgians Africa, the Spanish Latin America and so on. It is good that presidencies find the energy to organise meetings on these ‘priority’ issues but then there are serious problems concerning lack of continuity and the resources now required to run the Presidency. The new very small member states will find it difficult if not impossible to cope with the increased burdens. Alternative solutions include an elected chair for two and a half years or team presidencies or allowing Mr CFSP chair the external relations council. There are clear advantages in the latter formula as Solana cannot be accused of pushing any national interest. Many Member States, however, remain to be convinced that abolition would necessarily improve policy making and representation.

Parliamentary Oversight: It will be important to enlist the support of the European public, through the involvement of the European Parliament (EP) and national parliaments as well as the media and NGOs, for the goals of the CFSP. This should involve not only a greater role for the European Parliament, but perhaps a six-monthly debate in all national parliaments simultaneously on the CFSP’s goals and achievements. This could be based on a short report by Solana/Patten and would ensure that each member state’s foreign minister was actively involved in explaining and defending the CFSP. There might also be regular forums for discussions on CFSP aims with NGOs. At present they tend to lobby, often noisily, on single issues. If they were confronted with the full range of problems facing the CFSP, it might help them better understand the limitations of CFSP.

ESDP: It is imperative that the headline goal targets for ESDP are met. Failure to do so would seriously undermine the EU’s nascent pretensions on the world stage. The EU cannot escape taking on the responsibilities set out in the Petersberg Tasks, i.e. humanitarian operations, peacekeeping and peace enforcement. If there is to be no substantial increase in defence budgets then there should be far more emphasis on sharing between Member States to mitigate the damage caused by ever more limited defence resources. Abolishing the treaty protection of national arms industries is an essential and long overdue move. A new treaty might also strengthen existing provisions for enhanced co-operation in order to minimise the dangers of a directoire emerging on the ESDP front. The Iraq experience to date has shown that these dangers are very real.


The EU has developed steadily as an international actor during the past decade. Much has been achieved but arguable the record could have been better with strengthened institutions. The proposals in this paper are at the modest end of the spectrum but if implemented they could lead to a significant improvement in the EU’s external performance. Of course, foreign policy remains a sensitive area and Member States are keen to retain their amour propre. Foreign ministries are also reluctant to negotiate themselves into oblivion while there remain unanswered questions about legitimacy and significant differences of foreign policy culture, experiences and expectations within the member states. At the end of the day CFSP depends on the political will of its Member States and there are inevitable limitations in the conduct of foreign policy in a Union that wishes to retain the independence and identity of its member states. In some important areas the EU finds itself ham-strung but these areas are becoming fewer as the Member States come to accept the advantages of working together. The national obsessions of some Member States may indeed have beneficial effects for the EU. The Union would never have paid so much attention to East Timor, for example, without the forceful prodding of Portugal over the years.

The task of the institutions is to make it easier for the Member States to integrate their efforts and then to promote common policies more effectively. It is unlikely, given the sensitivities of Member States, that one should expect significant changes to the treaty provisions for CFSP. Most Member States appear comfortable with present arrangements although there are several who recognise the importance of changes in the external representation front in light of enlargement. These changes, if agreed, are likely to be incremental in nature. The CFSP approaches puberty after a difficult childhood with little sign that its parents have overly high ambitions for its future. As Patten has recognised “if the CFSP is to grow to maturity, it needs the nurture of both its parents, the Member States and the Community institutions. And – as any psychologist will tell you – the child is more likely to be happy and healthy if those parents love one another”. To return to our initial question, although the capability-expectations gap has narrowed in the past decade, it will be some time before it is closed.

Fraser Cameron, Director of Studies with The European Policy Centre

For more analyses see The European Policy Centre’s


Subscribe to our newsletters