22nd Mar 2018


Ashton should green EU diplomacy

  • Ms Ashton (c) and Mr Van Rompuy (r) have new powers under the Lisbon Treaty (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The European Union punched below its weight in Copenhagen. When Barack Obama did the climate deal with China, India, Brazil and South Africa, European leaders were caught by surprise.

In a changing world, Europe needs stronger green diplomacy to move the global environmental agenda forward. In addition, a greening of foreign policy would increase security, as many conflicts arise over scarce resources and degradation of ecosystems.

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The Lisbon Treaty gives new opportunities. As high representative for foreign relations, Catherine Ashton should move quickly to make environment a test case for a more coherent foreign policy, working closely together with EU commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Council chairman Herman Van Rompuy and with member states.

EU governments have already agreed guidelines for the new European External Action Service. One of Catherine Ashton's first tasks is to propose how it should operate.

Responsibility for sustainable development should be placed close to the high representative in a strategic unit. The External Action Service needs not only skilled diplomats, but also experts on energy, transport, agriculture and environmental protection. Staff resources for sustainable development should be increased, both in the EU institutions and in national foreign ministries.

Member states can co-operate better by for example sharing environmental attachés in key countries. The existing Green Diplomacy network is an asset in this regard. By pooling resources and improving coherence, it will be easier for Europe to convince partners on climate, biodiversity, chemicals and other important issues.

In substance, there is much for the high representative to do. The EU needs a strategy for green diplomacy, similar to earlier programmes for conflict prevention and the fight against terrorism.

Security policy must address new threats such as climate change. The process for assessing potential conflicts needs to be improved. Situation reports must include environmental aspects to a larger extent. One urgent task for Catherine Ashton is to increase analytical capacity in this area. Climate and resource security should more regularly be on the agendas of foreign ministers and of geographical working groups.

Improving trust in the European Union among developing countries is key to agreement on trade and environmental issues. The treaty changes might make it easier to co-ordinate development policy and traditional foreign affairs, bringing about organizational and cultural change in both areas. Although the Council has agreed guidelines, it is still unclear as to exactly how this will be done. However, links between security, environment and development experts must be reinforced.

Environmental aspects should be better integrated in external programmes and policies, whereas poverty reduction must remain the main goal for development policy. This new approach should be applied already during the current mid-term review of country strategies.

Climate negotiations will continue on their established track. Environmental ministers and the skilled climate experts in the European Commission have crucial roles. However, the new possibilities in the Lisbon Treaty should be exploited to their full extent. It's time for Catherine Ashton to seize the opportunity and strengthen green diplomacy.

Mats Engstrom is the former deputy state secretary for the environment in Sweden

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