24th Oct 2016

EU foreign minister has 'impossible' task ahead

The tasks of the proposed new EU foreign minister look relatively clear-cut and powerful on paper but analysts and politicians in Brussels suggest the person will need to be superhuman to manage all that is foreseen under the Lisbon Treaty.

Formally known as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the beefed-up position puts foreign policy clout and the financial means to implement it into the hands of one person.

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  • Meeting with foreign dignitaries is only part of the high representative's task (Photo:

Until now, the two strands have been split between the foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero Waldner.

The set-up proposed under the EU's new institutional rules, due to come into place on 1 December, says the foreign minister will chair the monthly meetings of his national counterparts, be a vice-president of the European Commission, and run the nascent diplomatic service.

Full agenda

The additional baggage that comes with the position, however, suggests that the new foreign minister will not have much time for tasks essential to making a success of the job, including building up contacts across member states and in places like Russia, the US and China.

"Most of his month is already fixed," an EU official pointed out, noting that the minister will have to attend the weekly meeting of EU commissioners, chair the foreign affairs councils, attend bilateral summits and appear before the European Parliament. He will also have to co-ordinate the commissioners with external action powers, such as those in charge of trade, development and neighbourhood policy.

In the first months on the job, the top diplomat will also have to fine-tune the outline of the external diplomatic service, as well as set up his own immediate team of staff. Later administrative tasks will include agreeing the personnel of the service - expected to run into the thousands.

Speaking of the long hours it will involve, Markus Ferber, a German centre-right MEP, last week summed it up as a "hell of a job that I would not wish on my worst enemy."

In addition to the lengthy to-do list, the person is likely to spend much of their time fighting their corner in an already very crowded EU foreign policy patch. "You've got a president of the [European] commission who loves foreign affairs and a president of the European Council who may or may not be interested," said the EU official.

Antonio Missiroli, from the European Policy Centre think-tank, said it is an "almost impossible job description."

He noted that one of the main assets of the current situation was that Mr Solana "had very little staff, so could be a roving diplomat and could establish relations all over the world."

The new job will mean "a lot of internal work, a lot of money to decide how to spend and a lot of people to co-ordinate."

The need to delegate

Although the Lisbon Treaty does not mention the possibility of having a deputy, and the legal service of the council, representing member states, says it would be illegal, delegating parts of the job to others is likely to be the only way to manage it.

The foreign minister - a job that has been linked to both British foreign secretary David Miliband and former Italian prime minister Massimo D'Alema - is likely to delegate decisions to EU commissioners that work on external issues as well as to special representatives, whose job description remains vague in the treaty but who could be responsible for a particular geographical area.

According to Mr Misseroli it would be "a system of deputising without calling it that."

The set-up has its defenders, however. Spanish centre-right MEP Inigo Mendez de Vigo, who was an influential member of the convention that drew up what would eventually become the Lisbon Treaty, said the foreign minister is the "crucial one" when it comes to the EU's external actors.

He noted that the "double-hatted" solution where the minister is both a part of the council and commission is the only way to make sure the person is "no longer the obedient servant of the council." He pointed out that getting it agreed that the foreign minister would chair the monthly foreign minister meetings was a make-or-break point for many conventioneers, who did not want the person to be "subordinate" to other foreign ministers.

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