27th May 2019


A telephone number for Henry Kissinger

When the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) enters op-ed pieces, an anecdote invariably pops up: In 1973, Henry Kissinger, then US secretary of state, supposedly complained that "Europe" did not exist as there was no single telephone number to call.

This story is apocryphal. Actually Kissinger complained because the first experiment in foreign policy co-ordination, the so-called European Policy Co-operation (EPC) did NOT work. Rather than speaking to one partner on the phone, the Council Presidency, the US had to stay in contact with all capitals to be kept in the loop. The EPC was quickly tuned down to an instrument of exchanging information rather than to guide policy.

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Thirty years later the institutional maze is not much clearer. It is still confusingly difficult to find out who really is in charge in shaping foreign policy in the EU, though it is at least obvious that the one person with a telephone number and the title of "High Representative for the CFSP" does not call the shots.

Exchange of fire between capitals

Recent events seem to justify scepticism: After the heavy shelling and sniper fire between European capitals during the Iraq crisis, dooms-sayers now ring the death knell for a common external policy of the EU.

But this goes too far. CFSP should not only be measured on Iraq. It is a special political animal that differs substantially from more down-to-earth policy sectors in the EU:

a) Foreign and Security Policy is often described by political scientists as "high politics". A better term might be "highly visible politics". Compared to the rather dull development of average legislation, foreign policy has theatre quality that plays well with the media and voters. National leaders adore hobnobbing with the bigwigs on the international scene, for example sharing a pretzel with George W. Bush in the White House Rose Garden. Therefore national politicians are loath to hand over national sovereignty to supranational institutions in foreign policy. This would be the end of the public pretzel.

b) The complex machinery of the EU with its institutional counter-weights is excellent for slowly emerging legislation with broad consensus, but totally unsuited for the rapid decision-making necessary in foreign and security policy. The quickest the EU can produce when facing the unforeseen is a vague statement of the EU presidency, later backed up with a watered down compromise of the Council. With no strong executive in place, CFSP will remain ineffective.

c) The different size of member states and their international role also hinder the development of a common approach. France, the UK and to a lesser degree Germany, Italy and Spain have privileged access to international politics due to their political weight or institutional privileges (UN security council). They have no advantage in giving up these specialised positions in favour of a theoretical common European interest.

d) Finally, the USA plays an important role in European foreign policy schemes. Rather than only being a transatlantic villain that splits the old continent in a game of "divide et impera", member states are glad to have the American finger in the pudding. The US offers protection against the potential threat from the East and balances the ambitions of the big member states in their midst, particularly France and the UK.

The foreign policy successes and disasters of the EU mirror its strength and weaknesses:

The Iraq war with the leading role of the US, the specific role of Britain and France in the UN Security Council and the wonderful opportunity for all politicians to wrap themselves in their respective national flags, exposed all the CFSP deficits. The sputtering EU machinery only produced lame resolutions - more efforts for internal EU love and peace-making rather than practical policy.

Enlargement: foreign policy success story

On the other hand, the enlargement process is a clear EU foreign policy success story. Despite a slow process with several hurdles, timelines and difficult negotiation rounds, the EU is now ready to admit 10 new member states in its midst – a feat thought impossible when the Berlin wall came down. The same ability to create long-term political and economical structures might be useful in the strategic reconstruction and stabilisation of the Middle East.

Given the structural constraints of "high politics" and cumbersome EU decision-making, the way ahead for a CFSP will not be easy. Peddling with institutions like creating an EU "foreign minister" will have little impact on output, if member states do not agree to channel more of their foreign policy activities through EU institutions. A more interesting motor of integration might be the growing disengagement of the US from Europe and the dilution of NATO that would leave a European security scenario as the only alternative.

Finally, a new crisis in the EU "near abroad" with a disinterested US watching from the sidelines might shake European politicians out of their complacency and urge reforms to make EU CFSP more efficient. But the shock has to be severe to make national elites give up their international theatre stage in favour of supranational institutions.

It is unlikely that the telephone number Henry Kissinger can call in 2010 will give him all the answers he needs. But it is not impossible either.

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Bernd Halling worked for three years in the European Parliament during the negotiations of the Amsterdam treaty on institutional reform. He was co-founder of CIVIS a NGO committed to strengthening the voice of civil society in the European institutions. Since 1999, he is European Public Policy Manager of EuropaBio, the European Biotechnology Industry Association. He is a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the US.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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