Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Interview

2010: EU's new diplomacy in search of old élan?

  • First EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana (l) with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2003 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The EU foreign service has changed from a man with a phone to "a very large ship" in the past 10 years, for Pierre Vimont - one of its quintessential insiders.

But EU diplomacy needs to rediscover its former élan, Vimont said.

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  • Catherine Ashton and Pierre Vimont in 2010 (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Back in 2009, the EU foreign service more-or-less amounted to Javier Solana, a veteran Spanish diplomat, and Vimont was France's ambassador to the US.

But in 2010, the EU launched the European External Action Service (EEAS) to "assist" its "high representative" in forging a collective foreign policy.

British politician Catherine Ashton took over from Solana and Vimont left the Quai d'Orsay (the HQ of the French foreign ministry), after 38 years in the French corps, to become Ashton's right-hand man, the EEAS secretary general, in Brussels.

Recalling the pre-EEAS days, Vimont, who now works for the Carnegie Europe think tank, said: "More than anything else, it [the EU foreign service] was Solana himself, with a few aides around him, and a telephone on which he could do his diplomatic work".

Solana still played a decisive role in multiple conflicts.

In one call to Moldova's president in 2003, for instance, he stopped Russian president Vladimir Putin from flying in to sign a shady peace deal, even though Putin's jet was already warming up on the runway in Moscow when Solana phoned Chișinău.

"Some people say European diplomacy is 'fair-weather diplomacy', not for times of crisis," Vimont noted.

"I don't agree, because Solana was very-much involved in the North Macedonia crisis, in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Vimont said.

Solana's successors now have a full EU institution, with some 4,500 staff, 140 embassies, and €730m a year to help make an impact.

Its ambassadors speak for Europe around the globe.

Its staff chair EU nations' talks in dozens of meetings in Brussels salons and draft decisions, such as Russia economic sanctions, of geopolitical gravity.

And it will soon help to spend a new €20bn EU budget for joint-defence.

"Solana had a very small boat and his successors had a very large ship," Vimont said.

Aerial view of EEAS building in Brussels (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Still young

The new EU foreign service is still young, not least by comparison with the French foreign ministry.

"Ten years is a very short time in the field of governance," the 71-year old French diplomat said.

But, for Vimont, the surge in bulk has come at a cost in "agility".

Comparing EU to French foreign policy, he said: "When you launch an initiative in the Quai d'Orsay, you talk to a few partners, even, sometimes, you just launch it and see the reaction of others, but in the EEAS you have to take into account the position of 27 member states".

The EU method was "cumbersome" and required "lots of energy, time, patience", he said.

Ashton also played a valuable role in Iran nuclear talks and Kosovo-Serbia peace talks, Vimont noted.

But Solana's successors, including Italian diplomat Federica Mogherini, have been weighed down by management, trying to forge an "esprit d'accord" among staff, who spoke 24 European languages, Vimont said.

EU top diplomats have also held been back by "turf wars", he added.

"Should it [the EU foreign service] be a 28th foreign ministry, a coordinating organisation, or a think tank for member states ... a spokesperson?," Vimont asked.

"It was never agreed between member states and, also, with the [European] Commission ... and, 10 years later, it's still not settled," he said.

The current EU foreign relations chief, Josep Borrell, is, like Solana, a veteran Spanish diplomat, inviting comparisons.

And EU foreign policy might benefit if Borrell was, once again, allowed to play a freewheeling, Solana-type role, Vimont said.

"What we've been missing is the kind of agility Solana had," Vimont noted.

"There has been loss of [EU] impetus and relevance, compared to pre-EEAS days," he added.

"It's quite striking, you see it in Syria, and Libya, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis," Vimont said.

Josep Borrell 'takes the liberty of speaking his own mind' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Taking liberties

Borrell's personality recalled the old spirit, Vimont indicated.

"Sometimes he [Borrell] takes the liberty of speaking his own mind, even if he doesn't have the consensus of all the member states. I, personally, think it's very good," Vimont noted, in an approach which also echoed the Quai d'Orsay's audacity.

"After all, he [Borrell] has the right of initiative in the Lisbon Treaty," Vimont said, referring to EU law.

"I even heard some foreign ministers saying he [Borrell] should use that right more than he does," Vimont added.

And even if Europe had no army in increasingly dangerous times, the EU flag had its own power, Vimont said.

"When I was [French] ambassador [in the US] and I was in discussion with executive heads of some very powerful enterprises, and I was telling them 'Europe is still a very small power', they were saying: 'Are you kidding?'," he recalled.

"If we [the EU] don't have an army, we have economic power. The single market, in terms of trade, technology is very powerful," Vimont concluded.

EU ambassador Hans-Dieter Schweisgut (l) in Beijing (Photo: ec.europa.eu)
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