Opinion

EU top jobs: of dwarfs and giants

29.08.14 @ 09:28

  1. By Andre Wilkens

BERLIN - Advertising guru and successful entrepreneur David Ogilvy recruits executives according to the following principle: "If we only hire people smaller than us, we will be a company of dwarfs. If, however, we hire people who are taller, we will be a company of giants."

  • Competence mattered less, when Catherine Ashton was chosen at the EU's first High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy in 2009 (Photo: EEAS)

Why does his motto remind me of the upcoming nomination of the next EU foreign minister in August this year?

Is it because the EU traditionally tends towards making weak appointments, or is it due to the fact that it may well produce giants in difficult times? Both reasons are true.

The Lisbon Treaty created the post of the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, a quasi -foreign minister of the EU. (S)he heads an integrated European diplomatic service, and is a Vice President of the European Commission.

The new position was meant to provide an answer to the question posed by Henry Kissinger, who wanted to know what number he should dial in Europe if he wanted to talk foreign policy. The EU wanted to play an important role on the international stage, and after a long period of Eastern expansion and internal process optimisations, it was confident enough to deliver. A good aim.

The smallest common denominator

Catherine Ashton from the UK was the first politician to be appointed EU foreign minister in 2009. Until then she had hardly been involved in foreign affairs at all. She had just become a member of the European Commission, following trade commissioner Peter Mandelson who resigned to go back into domestic politics. It was her first international post, ever.

"Then, in 2009, the EU heads of state were focused on making sure than both the centre-right and centre-left got one of the two top jobs. They also wanted a woman to get one of the posts.

Competence was a minor criterion in the selection process. Ashton was appointed at the very last minute. She was the lowest common denominator, and she was as surprised as everybody else, when she realised that she was to have the European phone number that Kissinger and the rest of the world would be calling.

Clearly, she was not a foreign policy giant when she was elected in 2009. She had neither the authority nor the skills to negotiate at eye-level with opponents from the USA, China, Russia, and Iran.

Ashton worked hard, and others must decide whether she has become more than a foreign policy dwarf at the end of her office term. She is certainly no giant.

The foreign policy situation is explosive

Europe has also known different recruitment approaches, as the appointment of Mario Draghi to the helm of the European Central Bank at the peak of the Euro crisis has shown.

Draghi is an experienced, competent person, who is well connected in the European world of finance. He steered the Italian Central Bank through difficult times. In Berlin they called him a Prussian Italian and he is held in high esteem in Italy, too.

In his case, the heads of government agreed- irrespective of any considerations of proportional representation along national lines- to hire the best candidate for the job. Draghi has become a political giant in the euro crisis, and this has been for the benefit of Europe.

In August 2014 the financial crisis is not over, but Europe is already facing new risks. The foreign policy situation is more volatile than ever since the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.

Russia has annexed parts of a European neighbouring country and is fuelling civil war in the Ukraine. The tensions between Israel and Hamas have reached the boiling point. The brutal campaign of the "Islamic State" is not only a problem for Iraq, but threatens to affect the whole region. Iran continues working on its nuclear programme, and the on-going civil war in Syria is driving hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe.

Europe needs a true political heavyweight

Who, in view of this dilemma, will be the Mario Draghi of Europe's foreign policy? Will the European heads of state possess the greatness to overcome strict adherence to proportional representation on grounds of nationality, in order to appoint a giant with foreign policy experience, competence, negotiation skills and charisma as foreign minister?

Figures like Radek Sikorski from Poland, Emma Bonino from Italy, David Miliband from the UK or Frank-Walter Steinmeier from Germany?

Germany can do a lot at this stage to take on the new responsibility being continuously discussed in the media these days, even without approving military interventions.

Germany should show far-sightedness and fight for the appointment of a true political heavyweight for the post of the EU foreign minister at the end of August.

Or do we prefer a European Union of dwarfs? Would we rather be a European Dwarf Union?

Andre Wilkens is Director of the Mercator Centre Berlin of the Stiftung Mercator since 2011. He is a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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