Experts and analysts have given up complaining about the non-existent European foreign policy. Even the lack of consensus in such a relevant issue as the vote for the Palestinian state recognition at the UN seems to have raised less criticism this time than in September 2011 - when the bid was initially rejected.
The last three years have seen a wave of Ashton-bashing, who seemed to embody all the disappointments and frustrations about the shrinking role of the EU in the international arena, and about the unfulfilled expectations to become a real global player. Not any more; a least, not with the same virulence.
Despite all the nostalgia about what Javier Solana had done without even having the mandate; despite all the speculation about what the flamboyant title of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy given by the Treaty of Lisbon might have truly meant, there is a common assumption that nothing will really move ahead until the general economic, euro, and institutional crisis is resolved.
Divisions and Failures
The list of frustrations is long, though, and each of its items has only deepened the sense of irrelevance among Europeans. Back to the past, probably the case that best symbolizes the problems of the EU foreign policy was the Climate Summit at Copenhagen in December 2009. The champion of global environmental policies, the undisputed leader in the fight for sustainability, the EU, was left out of the final agreement.
The US president, Barack Obama, and the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, had arranged the text when the other BRICS - Brasil, India and Russia - sneaked in the room; but the Union was not even invited to join in. Catherine Asthon and Herman Van Rompuy had been named just a few days before, so the Summit's outcome had little to do with their negotiation abilities or their leadership skills. From Copenhagen to Doha last week, not much really substantial has been achieved in the battle against climate change and the European 2020 Strategy - the world's most advanced set of policies in this realm - is barely used as a model by anyone else.
From then on, division has been the key feature of a weird construction once meant to be the Common Foreign Policy. The impossibility to reach a joint position towards the Palestinian bid at the UN; the discrepancies about the NATO-led intervention in Lybia- with Germany in its favorite role of reluctant power ; or more recently, the abrupt failure to create the largest European aerospace and defense group, through the merger of EADS and BAE Systems are just a few examples of fragmentation among member states when dealing with the rest of the world.
It was a pity, in fact, that the construction of the new European diplomatic agency, the European External Action Service (EEAS) coincided in time with one of the most exciting chain of events of the last decade: the Arab Spring. The sudden transformation of the southern neighborhood was the perfect opportunity for Europe to accompany change in such a strategic region; but in spite of all the rhetoric, the overall answer has been timid, fragmented and late. Today, Syria is the stage of a terrible civil war to which an almost undaunted international community, including the EU, has been unable to respond properly.
The EEAS itself has had its own problems. Not that anyone had ever thought that setting up a brand new EU body would be easy, but the bureaucratic and technical issues and, once again, the struggle to place key national names in key positions took over much of the initial process, to which Lady Ashton has devoted much time and effort. This personal investment was not enough to prevent a foreseen reduction of around five percent for the EEAS's budget from 2014 on. It would be unfair, in any case, to blame a single body ,or a single person, for the perceived paralysis of European foreign policy.