Externe Publikationen

12. Dezember 2012

Sobering Balance for the EU External Staff

DGAP expert Cornelius Adebahr reports on the EEAS’s shortcomings in the British upper house of parliament

One of the most significant changes brought to to the EU by the Lisbon Treaty was the formation of a common EU External Service. But it is not progressing as planned. Two years on, Brussels is evaluating the state of the organization. The key to improvement, DGAP’s Cornelius Adebahr argues, is to focus on better cooperation and a division of labor between the EU and its member states. Using the example of EU delegations and Special Representatives abroad, Adebahr illustrates some of the external services problems.


Submission by Dr Cornelius Adebahr, Associate Fellow, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin

This submission focuses on particular aspects of the EEAS’ work, based on which an overall assessment of the functioning of the Service is made. In particular, the submission builds on research conducted for my dissertation on the EU Special Representatives (EUSRs) as well as on a more recent analysis of how the German Foreign Office adapted to the EEAS (as part of a joint research project on national diplomacies run be the European Policy Centre –EPC– in Brussels and the Finnish Institute for International Affairs
–FIIA– in Helsinki). Moreover, I draw practical conclusions on how member states delegations work in an important third country in the absence of an EU delegation given that I am currently based in Tehran and working with the local EU representation run by the Cypriot Embassy.

  • How well does the EEAS meet the objectives set out for it in the Lisbon Treaty and the Council Decision? Has the High Representative/Vice President fulfilled her mandate and the Council Decision for setting up the EEAS? What remains to be done?

The EEAS is still far from what it was imagined to be around ten years ago when such a Service was first muted. While the HR/VP may formally „conduct the Union’s common foreign and security policy“ to whose development she also contributes (as mandated by Article 18 of the Treaty on European Union), Baroness Ashton and the Service are yet nowhere close to actually driving the EU’s foreign policy towards a stronger global role.

While the language of the Treaty may be purposefully cautious, the political intent of having a foreign service should be clear: It should coordinate and lead joint foreign policy. Leading requires prior coordination, so the latter cannot do without the former. Yet, contenting onself with merely coordinating 27 different foreign policies reduces the EEAS to a secretariat for the member states – a misplaced copy of the EPC secretariat of the 1970s.

First and foremost, the EEAS needs proper ‚institution-building’. The technical merger of the staff, tools and components of the Commission and the Council dealing with external relations and foreign and security policy has been achieved with the set-up of the EEAS. Yet what is lacking is the Service’s proper mission that makes it the engine of a European foreign policy providing an added value for member states.

The example of the EU Special Representatives (EUSRs) may serve to illustrate this point both from a political and institutional perspective. For over 16 years at the service of the EU, the EUSRs constitute an established and successful instrument of European foreign policy. They are appointed by the Council on a proposal by the HR/VP (Article 33 TEU) and equipped with their own teams, which is why they remain functionally outside the regular EEAS bureaucracy. Given their flexible use in crisis management and conflict prevention, they rightfully ‚survived’ the establishment of the EEAS. (At the time of the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, as well as shortly after the setting-up of the EEAS, there was talk of abolishing the EUSRs altogether, as the new Service would presumably make them superfluous.) However, the EU needs to better integrate them into the new EEAS structures.

Politically, the EU should agree on when and how to use an EUSR in principle, i.e.

- for what types of mandates (e.g. to respond to a cross-border conflict destabilising a region of strategic importance to the EU),

- with what kind of envoy (e.g. high-ranking personalities from politics and diplomacy, from member states and EU institutions, who bring with them both a good knowledge of the conflict situation and the Brussels apparatus), and

- fulfilling which kind of function (e.g. to contribute to an internationally negotiated conflict resolution, to support respective EU bodies in policy formulation etc.).

In addition to such a basic EUSR strategy, the Council should instruct the EEAS to draw up “conflict strategy papers” for all existing (and as a precondition for any future) EUSR mandates. By detailing the EU’s role and interest, its current level of engagement as well as possibilities for concerted action of the EEAS, such papers contribute to a greater degree of goal-orientation in crisis management in general. They would help the EUSRs in particular to see their individual roles as part of a greater (EEAS-led) European approach with regard to the conflict area in question.

Institutional cooperation, in contrast, can be brought about by further tying the political and administrative team structures below the EUSR into the EEAS, e.g. by drafting policy advisors from the ranks of the Service or by establishing a joint administrative support structure within the EEAS.

  • How effective has the EEAS been in communicating and promoting the EU’s policies and values? Has it implemented Council CSFP and CSDP Decisions effectively?

When it comes to the international sanctions’ regime vis-à-vis Iran, the EEAS has utterly failed in communicating the EU’s policies. Time and again, ambassadors of member states have demanded a communcation strategy from Brussels, well aware of how much the Iranian sides perceives the nuclear issue not only as one of substance but also of propaganda. The regime knows that it can win over important constituencies, both within Western countries and beyond, with a rhetoric of ‚illegal sanctions hurting the civilian population’. However, the ultimate effectiveness of the sanctions policy rests on it being the morally right thing to do. If Iran succedes in playing the victim card, it will be difficult for the E3+3 to maintain the current level of pressure, let alone increase it through further sanctions.

One case in point is the discussion about drug shortages in the country as an effect of the sanctions. This was picked up in the latest UN human rights’ report (which is otherwise rather critical of the Iranian regime) and also received major coverage in the Western press. To date, no EEAS guidance has been forthcoming as to how to deal with the resulting image of ‚the West turning a blind eye to dying children and cancer patients’, neither in terms of communication nor in terms of substantial responses (such as providing medicine directly or through authorised bank transfers).

The weakness on the side of the EEAS results not only from the centralisation of this particular policy issue with the HR/VP (rather than mainly involving the geographical and thematic desks). Also the fact that there is no EU delegation in the country itself does not help. Indeed, such a delegation could be used to both channel information to Brussels and present a united front to the Iranian authorities.

  • Has the creation of the EEAS led to a more coherent and integrated EU foreign policy?

Too early to tell, given that the EEAS is so far mainly concerned with its own functioning. The cases mentioned throughout this submission highlight that with regard to both instruments (such as the EUSRs) and policies (vis-à-vis Iran), a lot remains to be done before – with or without the EEAS – the EU can claim to have a more coherent and integrated foreign policy.

  • How well does the EEAS work as an institution?

For an institution that is built from scratch, maybe not too badly; for an institution that is charged with running the foreign policy of a 500 million people union and builds on two well-functioning predecessors (Relex and DG E), this however is far too little. The Service is still the victim of institutional infighting over its competencies and internal struggling to get the right people into the right places. Rather than success stories about being at the forefront of European foreign policy, one hears about people trying to leave the Triangle building as soon as possible.

As a consequence, the EEAS does not have the aura of a ‚must be institution’. This, ironically, leads to the member states having problems to fill their much-emphasised one third personnel quota because, at least in some of them, applications by qualified diplomats are not as forthcoming. Unless this image of the EEAS changes as a result of substantial adjustments with regard to political strategy, member state support, work environment, and personnel selection, it may be down and low before it was really up and running.

  • How well has the objective of a geographically and gender balanced staff been met? How well has the objective been met of one third of staff from the diplomatic services of the Member States by mid 2013, a third from the Council Secretariat and a third from the Commission? Have staff been adequately trained to perform the diplomatic role? If not, what are the omissions?

Cf. also answer to 8.

One complaint about a lack of training concerns the writing of diplomatic cables. The quality of reporting coming from EU delegations seems to vary considerably, national capitals (i.e. the foreign ministries there) note. While political reporting is part and parcel of the training of national diplomats, it seems to have been omitted from the preparation of Commission officials for their new work environment. For some smaller member states with few embassies around the world, bad reporting may still be better than no reporting at all. Especially for the bigger member states, however, which often can compare incoming reports from the EU delegations with those of their own embassies, improving the quality of the intelligence gathered would be important for them to value the EEAS better.

  • In what ways has the financial and economic crisis within Member States affected organisation and activity of the EEAS?

Mostly be eating away nearly all the attention of national governments. Thus, EU foreign policy – never high on the agenda of most member states anyway – has dropped considerably in importance.

In addition, the idea of the biggest trading bloc in the world not being able to solve its own economic and financial problems, tarnishes the EU’s image as a relevant power in the world. It doesn’t even need a malfunctioning service to make the Union thus appear diplomatically weak. As an example, a country such as Iran with its economy in shatters can still point to the EU’s (and of course the US’) domestic problems claiming that with people rioting on the streets, the situation is much worse in Europe than there.

  • Has the EU created the right number and distribution of Delegations around the world?

Well, obviously, Tehran is an extremely a blank area on the map of EU delegations for that matter. Precisely because the UK no longer has an embassy here while other member states have reduced their personnel, it would be the right moment to open an (albeit obviously limited) EU delegation here. If this is thought to be impossible for ‚political reasons’ (which may, however, be miscontrued), there are still ways to create a European presence below the level of a proper delegation, e.g. through an EUSR field office or an information office of the European Parliament. Given that 2013 is considered a critical year for the international community’s encounter with Iran, it would be extremely important for the EU to be present on the ground before any such event.

  • How well do the relationships with the Foreign Ministries of the EU Member States work and how well do EU Delegations cooperate with the diplomatic missions of the EU Member States?

The German Foreign Office praises itself for a very good working relations with the EEAS. In interviews, officials claim that colleagues from the relevant units have weekly if not daily contact with their EEAS counterparts. The EEAS, they thus declare, is the foreign service with which they have the closest relationship.

  • Have the Foreign Services of other Member States all responded with their best candidates for EEAS posts?

Yes and no, at least in the case of Berlin. ‚Yes’ in the sense that, initially, the Foreign Office carefully selected its own candidates for very specific positions. This ‚targeted approach’ was meant to bring highly qualified diplomats into important positions. ‚No’, however, on at least two grounds: For one, by grossly limiting the number of applicants, the Foreign Office prevented other good candidates from running for other positions. For another, many of the selected candidates did not get appointed to the desired positions.

Rather, countries with a broad approach like France (which fielded numerous candidates for a long list of posts) or Finland (which included scores of non-diplomats into its candidate roster) were much more successful than Germany. Aware of this failure and willing to send good candidates to the EEAS, the Foreign Office changed its tactics and is now also ‚going broad’.

  • What should the EEAS need to do over the next three years and what should it prioritise? How can it maximise the influence of Member States and the EU in the future? On which areas should the 2013 review focus?

First of all, member states need to agree on what political mission they want the EEAS to have. Only if the 27 allow the HR/VP and her Service to have the added value that it should and could have – i.e. maximise the EU’s voice in the world, bring together the resources of member states on issues of common concern, drive forward the convergence of individual foreign policies in a well-understood European interest – then the institution will be successful.

Now that the EEAS has been formally established and started to take shape, the 2013 review should therefore focus primarily on the strategic direction the EU wants to take in the world. A major concern here is, of course, coherence. This relates to a review of both the distribution of competences between the Commission and the EEAS, and the division of labour between the 27 foreign ministries and the Brussels-based Service.

One Commission competence that should be moved to the EEAS is the one for the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). There are good reasons why Enlargement, despite often being called the EU’s ‚most successful foreign policy’, should remain with the Commission given the multitude of legal questions that membership entails. But precisely because membership is not on the table for the ‚circle of friends’ subject to the ENP, the latter should be brought under the EEAS’ competence. In the absence of the ‚ultimate carrot’ of membership, both the policies and instruments to promote changes in neighbouring countries are of a foreign policy (rather than approximation) nature.

Shifting competences from the national foreign services to the EEAS would require a Treaty change and is thus not the question of the 2013 review. However, the review should still focus on how to improve the division of labour between the two levels of foreign policy making. This pertains more to promoting a change of culture on the side of the foreign ministries rather than make substantial changes to the Council decision itself. Especially for the highest levels of decision-making, such a cultural change cannot be brought about within the formal structures of policy-making. That’s why the EU could increase the number as well as the focus of Gymnich-style meetings, both of the foreign ministers with Baroness Ashton and of the Political Directors chaired by the EEAS Deputy Secretary General. It is in these informal settings that the leading personalities can sit together and find political answers to the crises that abound around the EU. Once such a common position exists, the new machinery can then be brought to work.

Bibliografische Angaben

Contribution to the „Call for Evidence: European External Action Service“ by the British House of Lords, Committee on the European Union, 12 December 2012

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