As the influence of individual European countries vis-à-vis rising giants such as China declines, many look to the EU’s new diplomatic corps – the European External Action Service (EEAS) –– to augment their strength. But in 2011 Britain blocked the EEAS from articulating common EU positions at the UN, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and in some foreign capitals, angering other member-states. However, a recent agreement among EU countries over representation at international organisations should allow Britain to adopt a constructive approach towards the EEAS. It may also help to add European weight to British foreign policy objectives.
Even prior to the 2009 adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, which created the EEAS, the EU had routinely spoken with one voice in multilateral forums. Therefore it came as a surprise to other EU member-states when Britain decided to renege upon established procedures. In May of last year, Foreign Secretary William Hague sent an urgent diplomatic cable to all British overseas missions, warning diplomats to look out for EEAS ‘competence creep’. Hague believed that the EEAS – without the consent of the member-states – was increasingly speaking for Europe on foreign policy issues, even where competence rested with national governments rather than the EU institutions. Shortly afterwards, British diplomats began to block EEAS officials from speaking at international organisations, saying that new arrangements were needed to clarify when the EEAS was speaking for the EU institutions, the member-states or both.
Germany, the Netherlands and other countries took a dim view of Britain’s concerns, seeing a eurosceptic, ‘spoiling’ agenda behind Britain’s actions. In particular, they resented William Hague’s opposition to a more forceful EU representation at the UN. Meanwhile, the European Commission threatened to take Britain to the European Court of Justice if the UK persisted in blocking the EU from speaking at multilateral organisations where it had at least partial competence.
On October 22nd 2011 EU foreign ministers agreed to new rules on diplomatic representation. In future, the EEAS and other EU representatives will have to identify when they are speaking on ‘behalf of the EU’ (implying that common institutions enjoy full competence over the matter), ‘on behalf of the EU and its member-states’ (in cases when common institutions share competence with national governments) or ‘on behalf of the member-states of the EU’ (when EU institutions have no competence and only act upon request of the member-states). Britain believes that these arrangements will prevent EEAS officials from making commitments without first consulting the member-states.
While the UK government feels vindicated by the October 22nd agreement, other capitals are grumbling about it. They argue that precedents have long existed for the EU to represent the member-states on issues of shared competence (as they have done for the past 20 years at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, for example). They are concerned that the UK will use the new rules to block a more proactive role for the EEAS in international organisations. Some also worry that the squabble over representation signals a deeper UK dislike for a collective EU foreign policy, and fear that the EU’s ability to reach out to the emerging powers, in particular, will suffer.
The UK government agrees that the EEAS should co-ordinate member-states’ policies towards countries such as Brazil, China or India, and try to bring European views closer together. But London opposes any suggestion that EEAS officials should craft foreign policy. As part of its wider vision of a more inter-governmental EU – as opposed to one with strong, centralised institutions – the UK wishes the EEAS to play a limited and strictly subservient role to its own diplomacy. In a speech at the Foreign Office in September 2010, Hague rejected any reduction in Britain’s own diplomatic outreach in favour of a new, European form of diplomacy: “We cannot outsource parts of our foreign policy to the European External Action Service as some have suggested. There is not and will never be any substitute for a strong British diplomatic service that advances the interests of the United Kingdom. We can never rely on anyone else to do that for us.” This view runs directly contrary to a desire of smaller member-states for the EEAS to speak on their behalf to the rising powers of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Britain is not alone in refusing to substitute its bilateral relations with other countries for an approach led by the EEAS. Although the UK government is influenced by a long-standing ‘euro-scepticism’ within its ranks, the concerns of Germany, France and Italy derive from a more practical standpoint. These larger member-states are simply not yet convinced that the EEAS, despite the influx of seconded diplomats from EU countries, can match their own standards for political reporting and negotiation. They think that a collective European approach in foreign capitals is desirable but impractical under the current circumstances. So the EEAS is caught between misgivings over its right to speak on behalf of member-states and a lack of faith in its ability to do so. Consequently, the hopes of smaller member-states for an integrated European diplomacy in Beijing, Brasilia or New Delhi are likely to be disappointed.
It will take time to build a capable diplomatic service. The smaller member-states should therefore scale back their ambitions for the EEAS, and the EU as a whole needs to give its diplomatic service a more focused mission. The EU’s nascent diplomacy should mirror that of an emerging power, initially focusing on trade and consolidating its influence in the European neighbourhood. The EEAS should play a complementary role to the Commission’s trade duties by providing the political information that can make or break negotiations. While the Commission’s officials are good at technical dossiers they often lack an understanding of the internal political situation in the countries with which they are negotiating. For example, at a Doha round of WTO talks in 2008, EU officials underestimated the resistance of Brazil, India and others to a deal on reducing agricultural subsidies, leaving commissioners to appear surprised and defensive.
Similarly, in September 2010, the EU delegation failed to foresee that the European Union’s bid to gain speaking rights at the UN General Assembly would run into opposition from even traditional allies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Neither was the EU aware until the last moment that the Caribbean Community, an important EU development and trade partner, would lead opposition to its proposals. This defeat exposed the lack of diplomatic capability within the EU, where an overwhelming focus on internal dialogue and co-ordination prevailed over outreach to external partners and political analysis. EEAS diplomats are well positioned to address this deficit, and the UK should push the EEAS and the Commission to work jointly to help the EU craft a better diplomatic strategy for future negotiations relating to trade and other areas.
Britain also has a strong motive to encourage the EEAS to become more active in the European neighbourhood, in particular in the Middle East and North Africa. Here, Britain lacks a comparative advantage over other member-states: Paris, Madrid and Rome have more influence in parts of the Arab world than London, and they have also taken the lead in shaping the EU’s policies towards the southern neighbourhood. The UK has previously opted for a secondary role, missing a valuable opportunity for added influence in a strategically important part of the world.
Britain has a security and trade interest in fostering stability in countries such as Egypt and Libya. And while it lacks the political and economic tools to do so alone, the EU is North Africa’s biggest market and investor. The European Commission now plans to spend €18 billion in development assistance from 2014 to 2020 in the neighbourhood countries, an increase of seven billion euros from the previous funding period. The EU has adopted a ‘more for more’ principle in the wake of the ‘Arab spring’, offering to negotiate enhanced access to EU markets in return for a strengthening of democratic institutions in neighbourhood countries. The UK should now press the EEAS to come up with clear criteria to measure progress towards political reform to ensure that ‘more for more’ becomes a consistent reality rather than mere rhetoric.
The UK relationship with the EEAS has got off to a difficult start. David Cameron’s decision in December 2011 to opt out of an agreement to create a fiscal union between most EU member-states further complicated Britain's relations with the rest of the EU. But foreign policy remains a prerogative of the full EU of 27 members, and Britain will have a strong say in it, even if it is not in the fiscal union. It is in the UK’s interest to work with other member-states to set coherent and achievable objectives for the EEAS. The agreement of October 22nd provides an opportunity for Britain to turn from defensive laggard on the EEAS to constructive pragmatist. The alternative is a constant, mutually destructive clash between competing bureaucracies. Britain is entitled to resist ‘competence creep’. The best remedy is for the UK to tell the EEAS what to do and where.
Edward Burke is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.