When the European External Action Service (EEAS) was established in 2010, it was agreed that its organisation and function would be reviewed by mid-2013 and, if need be, changed. For several months now, interested parties have been digging the trenches and formulating their positions, especially the member states and the European Parliament. The EEAS itself has been remarkably low-key on the subject until very recently.
The low profile that the EEAS has given the review process so far is understandable. It faced towering expectations after the introduction of the Lisbon treaty, resulting in much criticism that it was unable to offer a single voice for EU foreign policy from day one. The EEAS would surely be right to argue that the upcoming review comes rather early. Nevertheless, a number of acute challenges must be tackled now in order to strengthen the diplomatic service’s performance in the immediate future.
Less than three years since its inception, the EEAS remains an organisation in transition, with its headquarters uneasily positioned within the EU’s external-relations machinery at the service of Catherine Ashton, high representative for the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy as well as a vice-president of the European Commission. The EEAS, other EU institutions and the member states are still adjusting to the new situation, and the EEAS’s mandate continues to be moulded as policy needs arise. The vague notion that the EEAS would ‘add a political dimension’ to EU external relations, most crucially to the external dimension of EU internal policies, remains the most problematic issue. The result is friction with and between member states with minimalist and maximalist ideas about the EEAS’s role, and the multiplicity of working relations between the EEAS with the directorates-general of the Commission. Some are smooth, while others are taxing, to say the least.
If anything, the upcoming review should serve as a reminder that only so much can be done through changes in the EU’s treaties and legislation. Ambitious goals require the means to achieve them. This review should be a time for reflection about how to inject fresh vigour into the idea that lay behind the EEAS’s inception: a stronger role of Europe in the world. First and foremost, the 2013 review should be used as an opportunity to establish a common understanding of the mandate and role of the EEAS. Nothing less than a ‘New Deal’ may be needed between all stakeholders, above all between the EEAS and the Commission. This should involve a re-balancing between the common foreign and security policy (CFSP) tasks and non-CFSP tasks carried out by the EEAS. More emphasis should be placed by Ashton and her successor on the position of vice-president of the Commission. This re-orientation should lead to a greater role for the EEAS in the external dimensions of internal EU policies – for example, in the EU’s external energy policy.
Part of this New Deal should also be a more holistic vision of the position of the EEAS as not just an appendix to serve the high representative, but as a body at the service of all, including the member states. Questions about the service’s budget need to be approached in the context of a broader, more integrated vision. The EEAS was conceived in times that were good for the Union, yet was born in times of crisis and austerity. It was, therefore, decided that its inception and operation be guided by the principle of cost efficiency “aiming towards budget neutrality”. However, this budget neutrality has all too often leaned towards a ‘zero-growth’ approach to the service’s budget. The EEAS’s potential impact on cost efficiency should be viewed as part of a broader exercise. Crucially, many member states have had to make cuts in their foreign-affairs budgets, both in terms of staff and missions abroad. A recent report to the European Parliament showed that none of these cost-cutting exercises was made with an eye to the possible efficiency gains of using the delegations of the EEAS and the European Union.
The upcoming review should not detract from the most conspicuous success of the new set-up: the EU’s delegations. As ‘ambassadors of the EU’, heads of delegation offer a single point of contact, and a significant dose of coherence across all EU policies in bilateral and multilateral settings. Co-operation with the member states has been good from the start, or has improved significantly where it was problematic, such as at the EU’s representation at the United Nations. The main challenges that the review could address here are the artificial divide created between Commission and EEAS staff serving in the delegations, and the excessive administration that heads of delegation have to handle. Their time and resources should be invested in diplomacy, rather than spent on the minutiae of administration.
The EEAS offers many opportunities to foster coherence, effectiveness and continuity in the EU’s external action. It should use its ‘coherence mandate’ to a much greater extent in order to become the prime diplomatic entrepreneur in EU external action by fostering reciprocal information-sharing, co-operation and co-ordination between the national and EU levels, shaping and proposing novel policy ideas, and pro-actively promoting coherent external action across all policy domains.
Three key steps are needed to help the service in attaining this objective: a ‘New Deal’ between the Commission and the EEAS; stronger support for the EEAS on the part of member states; and the replacement of the target of budget neutrality with a more realistic focus on budgetary efficiency.
Jan Wouters occupies the Jean Monnet chair of EU and global governance at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Bart Van Vooren is assistant professor in EU Law at the University of Copenhagen.
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