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25th May 2019

Opinion

External Action Service review: why it's important

  • Ashton - her leadership is to end in 2014 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Two years since its creation, the European External Action Service (EEAS), supposedly the EU’s foreign policy engine, is about to face a review.

Some will ask: "again?" and work against the risk that the review opens a Pandora’s Box of requests to change nitty gritty institutional issues.

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Others will say: "at last!" arguing that the EEAS experiment has been a failure and needs a fundamental rethink.

A middle way between these two positions may not inspire political battles, but would be wise.

The 2013 Review gives the EU the opportunity to put its foreign policy house in order and for the high representative, Catherine Ashton, to leave a positive legacy for her successor.

Indeed, the timing of the review was precisely thought to prepare for the future of institutions whose leadership will change in 2014.

There are a number of areas to be addressed.

Many appear to be bureaucratic issues, such as the relationship between the top management of the EEAS, the high representative and her cabinet, and the rest of the service.

Relations within and between the components of the EEAS and the other EU institutions, especially European Commission branches dealing with crisis management, external assistance and humanitarian aid are another issue.

This is not just about organigrammes.

The broader political questions these internal matters raise include accountability, transparency and functionality. Who is responsible for what? What is the hierarchy? How are relations with the commission, the Council, the European Parliament and the member states managed?

In short, is the current structure the best to manage the diverse challenges that the EEAS has met in these two years?

Other matters may seem trivial to outsiders. These relate to staffing policies, the balance of officials coming from member states, gender balance, staff rotation between Brussels, the European capitals and the EEAS delegations around the world.

Much of the bad press the EEAS has received is a consequence of the low morale of staff during the phase of merging officials from the commission, the Council and national diplomacies.

If these highly qualified people cannot work well together, it is not possible for the EU to develop joined-up policies which bring together competences in foreign policy with those in energy, migration, climate change and the special knowledge and diplomatic traditions developed in each member state.

If the real added value of the EEAS and of the EU as a global actor is in developing holistic approaches to international affairs which benefit from a very broad range of tools - from external aid to EU missions to train judges and police forces - the people involved need to be able to work together.

Much of the focus will be on giving the high representative one or more deputies who can take over tasks in an overcrowded agenda, bearing in mind the unique role of the high representative, who has to chair the foreign ministers, head the EEAS and represent the EU on foreign policy, as well capitalize on her position in the commission and relate to the European Parliament.

Should the deputy be able to do all this in the high representative's absence?

Or should these tasks be divided up between different deputies? Whatever decision will be made on this and other organisational matters, a recognition that there is no ideal bureaucratic model may help tone down expectations and find realistic solutions.

Alongside details of the changes that may be brought to the EEAS, there is another, equally important dynamic: the process that the review entails.

The institutions and member states have only just started to mobilise for it. Germany has presented a non-paper with suggestions, the European Parliament is preparing a resolution, think tanks have published papers with ideas for action.

EU foreign ministers will meet informally in the second half of March to share some ideas.

It would be good if they then discussed these ideas with their ministries and even national parliaments. If lack of vision and strategy is one of the complaints about EU foreign policy, making the review process more participatory could inject a new dynamism into the debate.

After all, it might be time to ask why EU foreign policy is important and to refresh member states’ commitment to it.

The EEAS review is not just an opportunity for Ashton to score a potential success. It is also the chance to broaden the debate within Europe on the future of Europe’s role in the world.

Rosa Balfour is an analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels. Kristi Raik works at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs in Helsinki

Disclaimer

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

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