No. 1: July-September 2011

Chris J. Bickerton

EU Foreign Policy

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present state of the EU foreign policy?

At the level of public commentators and the makers of EU foreign policy themselves, the prevailing sentiment is perhaps best captured by Antonio Gramsci’s dictum, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. The EU’s actions in international affairs in recent years have failed to substantiate the hope that the EU will emerge as a major power in 21st century world politics and yet the hope remains that it will do so in the coming years.

Two of the most significant developments are the creation of an empowered High Representative of Common Foreign and Security Policy under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty and the launching of the European External Action Service (EEAS). The High Representative bestrides both the Council of Ministers and (as vice-president) the European Commission. It was intended that a combination of the roles hitherto filled by separate individuals would generate more coherence in EU foreign policy. The new post of High Representative, to the surprise of many and opprobrium of some, was filled by the British peer, Baroness Catherine Ashton. Largely unknown to European and even to British publics, Ashton’s first 18 months have generally been regarded as a failure. From her decision to not travel to Haiti in the aftermath of its devastating earthquake through to the mysteriously under-reported launch of the EEAS, Ashton has failed to stamp her imprint on international diplomacy. The Lisbon Treaty, analysts concur, has failed to create a heavyweight foreign policy figure as part of the EU architecture. Few can agree on whether this is to do with Ashton’s perceived personal failings, such as her predilection for weekends at home in London, or if it is symptomatic of a deeper problem that suffuses the EU as a whole.

The EEAS was designed as a pan-European diplomatic machine, rationalizing the representation of the EU abroad and its internal workings in Brussels. It was to be made up of European Commission officials, officials working within the Council Secretariat and national diplomats from member state foreign ministries. Now operational, the EEAS has been marked by bureaucratic battles between different institutions of the EU. The European Commission has fought hard to retain control over policy areas it feels are its own, such as development and humanitarian aid. The European Parliament has seen in the EEAS an opportunity to stretch its muscles, trying hard to impose its own institutional design onto the High Representative and to secure its right to vet closely appointments to the top positions. It was largely unsuccessful but the struggle has left its mark on the Service.

Notwithstanding these substantial problems, hope remains that the EU will manage to establish itself as a leading foreign policy player. Here, the wish, as they say, is father to the thought. The President of the European Council, Herman van Rompy, has suggested that the EU can distil from its multiple strategic partnerships with countries such as China a more general grand strategy for the Union. Catherine Ashton has identified in the Arab spring an important opportunity for EU diplomacy: close to the EU’s borders and in line with its self-understanding as a democracy-promoter, events in North Africa seem to be an ideal opportunity for the EU to assert itself as the dominant regional player. In practice, the EU remains as far away as ever from the creation of an identifiable Grand Strategy. The most striking feature of Europe’s response to the Arab spring has been the dominance of national foreign policy strategies. Intervention in Libya has revived the flagging fortunes of the Quai d’Orsay and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office whilst exposing the EU to charges of inaction and disinterest. The most Ashton has managed so far has been to channel funds towards fledgling democracies in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere and make some move towards freer mobility and market access to the EU for countries on the North African coastline. Politically, diplomatically and militarily, involvement has been via individual member states and under the aegis of NATO, not the EU.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

Supporters of EU foreign policy often suggest that time is needed for institutional reforms to take effect. The EEAS, only just launched at the end of 2010, is far from working at full capacity. The effects of working together within a single institution also take time to be felt. Only after a few years can we really judge whether or not the EEAS has been a success. The same can be said for the position of the High Representative. Over the next five years, key issues will certainly include the EU’s role in North Africa and its contribution to the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Assessing the success of Ashton’s idea of building “deep democracy” in the Arab world should also be done over the medium term. The likelihood, however, is that over the next five years the combination of ongoing policy failures alongside ever-optimistic claims that a powerful and effective EU is just around the next corner will continue to mark discussions over EU foreign policy.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

In the longer-term, a number of underlying structural factors will continue to shape the development of the EU’s foreign policy. One is the relationship with the United States. Obama’s foreign policy has been marked by a certain disregard for European affairs. The expectation by the State Department has been that Europeans should increasingly look after themselves as the US begins to engage more consistently with other parts of the world. This is what some commentators have called ‘a post-American Europe’. The US has also called upon European states to be more active within NATO. The demilitarization of Europe they identify as a dangerous and unwanted trend. Another key factor is the balance between national and EU level foreign policy. A surprising development in the response to the Arab spring was the degree to which diplomacies in London and Paris mobilized themselves, putting themselves in the forefront of developments. In contrast, Berlin made it clear that it did not want to be involved in any military strikes against Qaddafi. The long-term trend remains a withdrawal by Europe’s major states from international level power politics. Involvement in the policing of no-fly zones or fighting a renegade leader on humanitarian grounds is consistent with the transformation of European militaries towards expeditionary warfare pursued by slimmed-down professional militaries. This change has been consistent with the EU’s own involvement in civilian missions around the world and there is little to suggest that this trend will be reversed.

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Chris J. Bickerton is an assistant professor in political science at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. He has published widely on EU foreign policy, including a book published in 2011, entitled EU Foreign Policy: From Effectiveness to Functionality (Palgrave-Macmillan).

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