The EU's Confused Foreign Policy

The EU's Confused Foreign Policy

Abstract: The European Union finally succeeded in ramming through introduction of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009. The treaty was touted by the powers in Brussels as the vehicle that would create the long-awaited "single phone line" to Europe. Lisbon was to streamline the gargantuan EU bureaucracy and make communication between the two sides of the Atlantic smooth and tidy. Instead, the mess is worse than before, with five EU "presidents" tripping over each other and confusing Washington with ill-defined, overlapping, and flat-out confusing roles and foreign policy objectives. The Lisbon Treaty essentially allows the EU a foreign policy power-grab, the driving force of which is the notion that the countries of Europe will be stronger collectively than they are separately. But sovereignty cannot be traded for influence, and the EU's attempts to do so could threaten the security of Europe-- and of the United States.

After eight years of tortuous negotiations and three referenda rejections, the European Union (EU) formally introduced the Lisbon Treaty on December 1, 2009. But it has taken just three months for the EU's oft-repeated claim that the treaty would create a "single phone line" to Europe to unravel.

The Lisbon Treaty was meant to address the question famously attributed to Henry Kissinger--"Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?"--by instituting a permanent EU president and foreign minister and by streamlining Brussels' mammoth bureaucracy,[1] but it has created more confusion than clarity, with no fewer than five people now sporting the title of president within the EU.[2] The appointment of Britain's Catherine Ashton to the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has compounded Washington's confusion, with U.S. officials unimpressed by her lack of stature and experience on the international stage.

Amid Brussels' institutional navel-gazing, President Barack Obama announced that this coming May, he will be the first U.S. President to miss the annual EU-U.S. summit in nearly two decades.[3] Confronted with Iran claiming itself a nuclear state, as well as the need to lead an Anglo-American surge in Afghanistan and deal with a major humanitarian disaster in Haiti, President Obama has concluded that he does not have time to sort through the diplomatic mess created by the Lisbon Treaty.

Far from simplifying matters, the Lisbon Treaty has created several additional layers of EU "leadership" with significant foreign-policymaking implications for the transatlantic alliance. The treaty has added a 28th European foreign minister for Foggy Bottom to consult without creating a corresponding military capacity to provide a meaningful partnership with Washington.

President Obama should therefore stress the value of America's bilateral relationships and oppose the creation of a second alliance competing for Europe's single set of military resources. He should engage with Brussels in instances where engagement can genuinely add value but stress NATO's primacy in European security arrangements. Finally, Washington should fully explore the implications of the Lisbon Treaty for foreign policymaking and make clear that it does not seek to replace America's time-tested relationships with a single European telephone line.

The New EU Foreign-Policymaking Machine and Its Operators

Despite more than 200 pages of amendments, declarations, and protocols, the Lisbon Treaty has left the various responsibilities of foreign policymaking ill defined among its actors. Although the new EU foreign minister has primary jurisdiction over the EU's main foreign policy tool, the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the permanent president of the European Council and the six-month rotating council president also represent the EU on the world stage.

Nor is the right to initiate or implement foreign policy entirely clear. The Council of Ministers will adopt measures (by qualified majority) to implement the strategic vision set forth by the European Council (voted by unanimity).[4] The High Representative and European Commission can also make recommendations to the European Council on CFSP and external action matters, respectively, and the council is then obliged to engage in "mutual sincere cooperation."[5] The commission further maintains responsibility for multiple areas of external policy, including enlargement, trade, development, and humanitarian assistance.

Rather than simplify foreign policymaking, the Lisbon Treaty has created an institutional hydra with growing numbers of appendages responsible for different aspects of the foreign policy toolbox. When President Obama asks to speak to "Europe," he could be referencing one of five people: Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council; José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission; Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, current rotating president of the Council of the European Union; Britain's Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; and possibly Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament.

The confluence of responsibilities within the EU's foreign policy machine, largely left to sort itself out over time, has predictably created turf wars both internally and between Brussels and the EU's member states.[6]

Catherine Ashton. In a surprise move, the EU appointed the relatively unknown Baroness Catherine Ashton to the position of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Previously held by Dr. Javier Solana, the post of High Representative is not a new one, but its powers have been considerably enhanced and its title nominally changed.[7] As the primary CFSP actor, the High Representative is responsible for initiating proposals to the European Council, including security and defense missions;[8] ensuring the implementation of CFSP decisions through the Foreign Affairs Council, which she will permanently chair;[9] representing the EU externally on CFSP issues;[10] and appointing special representatives as necessary and overseeing their work.[11]

Although the High Representative is meant to answer primarily to the European Council and therefore safeguard the primacy of nation-states in foreign policymaking, Baroness Ashton is also a vice president of the European Commission, presenting a conflict of interest. Baroness Ashton has already chosen to base herself in the commission's Berlaymont building, leading to concerns that arch-federalist José Manuel Barroso will control the CFSP by stealth. Combined with the tremendous number of commissioners with external relations briefs, including EU enlargement, trade, development, and humanitarian aid and crisis response, President Barroso will certainly exercise a great deal of control over foreign affairs.

Catherine Ashton's vulnerability to being pulled in the commission's direction rather than the council's is compounded by a less than stellar résumé and an awkward performance before the European Parliamentary confirmation hearings, where she was capable only of giving vague and generalized answers to specific foreign policy questions.[12] When asked whether the EU should replace France and Britain with a single seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Baroness Ashton embarrassingly admitted that she knew nothing about the topic, despite clauses in the Lisbon Treaty granting the EU the right to speak for its UNSC members in certain circumstances.[13] She concluded: "You've caught me out."[14] When asked about her strident advocacy of unilateral Western nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, she claimed that her opinion was formed without ever having visited Eastern Europe but may have changed later in life.[15]

Although the appointment of a Briton may be welcome relief to Washington because of its close relationship to London, it is clear that Baroness Ashton owes no special loyalty to the U.K. In fact, as a European Commissioner, she is specifically obliged to renounce her national loyalties and act in Europe's interest, not Britain's. This was obvious when she was questioned about Operation Iraqi Freedom at her confirmation hearings. Despite owing her appointment to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose country allied itself with the U.S. to lead the liberation of Iraq, she refused to answer the question of whether or not the war was justified.[16] She has also recently stated that she is no longer opposed to the creation of a permanent EU military headquarters that will stand separate from NATO, a policy reversal that clashes directly with London and Washington.[17]

Baroness Ashton's foreign policy experience amounts to little more than a year's service in the European Commission, taking over Peter Mandelson's trade brief following his return to Westminster. Nor has Baroness Ashton ever held elective office, having served previously in the unelected House of Lords. She is all but unknown in Washington, with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke unable to recall her name during a dinner with European bureaucrats soon after her appointment.[18]

When asked to describe the type of person suited for the role of High Representative, Cambridge University Professor Christopher Hill, testifying before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in 2008, stated: "There is only a small group who could be candidates for this kind of job.... They would have to have political weight, managerial capability, experience of at least one side--one hat, as it were--and external credibility." Professor Hill further stated that the appointee "must be somebody who the Americans are willing to take seriously."[19] On these counts, Baroness Ashton falls woefully short.

Herman van Rompuy. Although not quite as surprising as Baroness Ashton's appointment, heated debate did surround van Rompuy's candidacy, largely because of the simultaneous candidacy of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the end, European elites considered Blair too controversial to lead the EU because he had backed Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy took office as European Council president on January 1, 2010.

Van Rompuy is widely regarded as an arch supporter of European integration, supportive of EU-wide taxation, global governance, and supranational treaties to manage the environment.[20] He has also proposed tripling the number of EU summits, holding heads-of-state summits on a monthly basis.[21]

The foreign-policymaking powers enjoyed by van Rompuy will be significant. He presides over the shaping of the EU's overall strategic objectives in foreign policy and can call extraordinary council summits in the face of an international crisis.[22] This authority presents the possibility of considerable overlap with the High Representative's functions and responsibilities. In fact, when asked by a journalist at their inaugural press conference, "Which of you will Barack Obama be calling when he wants to talk to Europe, and which of you will call Obama when Europe wants to talk to him?" there was an uncomfortable moment of silence from Ashton and van Rompuy before van Rompuy joked that he was awaiting the President's call.[23]

Washington Loves the Lisbon Treaty

The Obama Administration has been an unequivocal supporter of further European integration, and specifically the Lisbon Treaty. The Administration sees the centralization of power in Brussels as a "grand experiment" that should be supported and encouraged.[24] During a meeting with President Barroso, High Representative Solana, and rotating Council President Fredrik Reinfeldt at the White House last November, President Obama welcomed the passage of the Lisbon Treaty: "I congratulated them [the EU] on the conclusion of the Lisbon Treaty, which will further move Europe in the direction of integration not only on economic policy but also on a number of security issues."[25] President Obama has further stated that he sees EU integration as synonymous with freedom[26] and free markets.[27]

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been even more enthusiastic about EU supranationalization. During a joint press conference with new EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton, Secretary Clinton stated: "I expect that in decades to come, we will look back on the Lisbon Treaty and the maturation of the EU that it represents as a major milestone in our world's history."[28]

The Obama Administration has given its full backing not just to economic integration--a long-standing U.S. policy--but also to the centralization of defense and security policies.[29] Unlike previous U.S. Presidents, President Obama has refused to publicly endorse the primacy of NATO in Europe's security architecture. Secretary Clinton is also reported to have raised the issue of the British Conservative Party's promise to repatriate select policies from the EU to the U.K. with Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague.[30]

EU Foreign Policy: What Will It Look Like?

The framers of the Lisbon Treaty were clearly more interested in centralizing member states' power than in creating a clear vision for Europe's future. It is impossible to outline the EU's grand foreign policy strategy, since subsuming members' sovereign foreign-policymaking tools is an end in itself for Brussels. However, in outlining the future of EU foreign policy, High Representative Ashton inchoately stated:

The job of diplomacy is to have a position but the job of diplomacy is also to work out the European Union, where its relationships are, what it should do for the future. As we begin this process, the very beginning of the work of the next few years to bring this all together, it is very important that working with the member states we develop our own policies and strategies.[31]

Confusion remains rife across the EU. The institutional changes secured in the Lisbon Treaty have not created additional political will among the members to effect genuine change on the ground, but they have created the basis for reining in members from potentially taking independent action.

Under the CFSP, member states are required to converge their actions and frame a common defense policy.[32] Crucially, each member state is now obliged to consult the others before taking action on the international scene that might contravene the EU's interests.[33] While Lisbon can create neither consensus nor will, it can prevent member states from making foreign policy decisions based on their national interests by subjecting those decisions to the approval of other EU members.

Although a veto is rarely exercised in practice within EU institutions, veto power is important when vital national interests are at stake. However, unanimous voting has been removed in several key areas, and majority voting has been introduced for 12 different areas of foreign policy, including the election of the EU foreign minister and approval of proposals emanating from her.[34] Under the Lisbon Treaty's Passerelle clause, the European Council is also allowed to increase the number of non-military CFSP decisions made by qualified majority voting, effectively making the treaty self-amending.[35] The reduction in nation-state sovereignty by the Lisbon Treaty is therefore extensive.

European External Action Service. One of the greatest changes in the EU's foreign-policymaking machine as a result of Lisbon is the creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's new foreign service. Staff from the commission, the council, and member states will be brought together to create a 6,000-strong diplomatic corps, answerable to the High Representative. The Lisbon Treaty left the details about EEAS open, with the High Representative responsible for specific proposals to be voted on by the European Council at a later date. Baroness Ashton has repeatedly stated that her primary goal is to implement the new EEAS, although serious institutional infighting and differences among member states themselves may delay its implementation past her preferred April timeline.[36]

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