Wednesday

27th Mar 2019

EU foreign ministers ponder their post-Lisbon role

  • The eight ministers gathered in northern Finland over the weekend (Photo: EUobserver)

With some foreign ministers feeling slightly disenfranchised by the European Union's new legal set-up, they are seeking to find a new public role for themselves in the EU.

Capitalising on this sentiment, Finland's foreign minister Alexander Stubb invited six of his EU counterparts, plus the Turkish foreign minister, for an informal brainstorming session on foreign policy strategy and possible future tasks for EU ministers in Lapland's Saariselka, some 250km north of the Arctic Circle.

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Speaking ahead of the discussions, which lasted roughly six hours over the weekend, Mr Stubb said: "A lot of us are going through a bit of an existential crisis. I admit that. Many of us are a little bit disappointed that we don't participate in the European councils anymore."

Under the Lisbon Treaty, foreign ministers no longer take part in EU summits while Catherine Ashton has become the new voice of the European Union in foreign policy.

"This is our new reality. We have to be more flexible with our role in the future," said Mr Stubb.

He suggested making more use of foreign ministers as "special political envoys" for different kinds of crisis situations.

"This was the topic of our meeting - how to co-ordinate, how to balance because we were just at the beginning of the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty," said French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner. He later added that special envoys must be chosen from within the "gang" of foreign ministers.

Ms Ashton, also present at the Lapland meeting, was for her part open to the idea. After the discussions, she said that so long as the EU is speaking with one voice, "the voice does not always have to be mine."

"We have to think about what is the best use of my time but also the best use of 27 foreign ministers either in groups or individually or altogether to deal with all of the issues that we are looking at," said Ms Ashton, who already has 46 pre-set meetings lined up for the period from September to the end of the year.

Several of the ministers - France, Spain, Italy, Estonia, Sweden, Finland and Turkey were represented - praised the small informal setting, which included few officials and no note-takers.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said it was "useful," while France's Mr Kouchner pointed to the fact the ministers had "hours" rather than just minutes to discuss issues. He suggested more small-group discussions based on a rotation of ministers and "devoted to one particular topic."

Mr Stubb has already indicated he wants to showcase more of his native Finland, suggesting a further two to three meetings in the Lake District and in the Finnish Archipelago.

"I think these type of informal discussions are what we need inside the European Union because it gives food for thought for our long term decisions," said Mr Stubb, indicating that he would in future invite Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to be the outside "commentator" on EU foreign policy - a role Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu played over the weekend.

Others warned against formalising small-group gatherings, however. "Let's keep the informality," Mr Bildt told this website. He was also less gung ho about the foreign minister as special envoy idea, saying: "We started a discussion about that but I think that will take its time."

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