21st Sep 2020


The Blueprint for External Action

  • High representative Catherine Asthon (Photo: Council of European Union)

The debate over the European External Action Service (EEAS) seems to be heating up. When Catherine Ashton discussed her last proposal on the service at the General Affairs Council last week, and obtained member states' political backing for it, there was a feeling that something weighty was on the move in Brussels.

It might actually be high time for Europe to show the world it can move on from its internal petty disputes and look at the wider world out there before this very world buries Europe under another financial crisis.

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Even though little is known yet of the details, immediate critics in the European Parliament and among NGOs have re-iterated their call to keep the area of development outside the reach of the EEAS. Under Ashton's proposal, one could assume that the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and most external policy instruments will fall under EEAS, that there will be a secretary general flanked by two under secretaries, and that the service will be divided in three: administration, geographic desks and operations.

But where the existing units of the pre-Lisbon Council secretariat and European Commission will fit exactly in the EEAS structure remains unclear. If the EU wants to be a credible and visible actor on the international stage, the EEAS should be designed in a way to enable the EU to have a common strategy, act quickly and show leadership in its external relations, particularly in the unstable parts of the world. Its structure, its working methods and the qualification of its personnel should be designed in a way that would enable the EU to intervene in a coherent manner throughout the so-called "conflict cycle": from conflict prevention through crisis management to reconstruction and development.

This would be best achieved in an integrated fashion, bringing together all the existing units and departments dealing with external policies across the EU institutions into one coherent political and operational framework.

Ideally, a Directorate General for Peacebuilding and Crisis Management should be created within the service in order to ensure strategic and operational coherence across all EU external actions from short-term crisis management to long-term conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

But Ms Asthon and the member states seem not to have favoured such an approach, preferring to have conflict prevention and peacebuilding treated horizontally in the geographical units of the service and crisis management under the direct responsibility of the future under secretary for operations.

The fact that both the Crisis Management, the Crisis Management and Planning Directorate (CMPD) and the Civilian Planning and Conduct Capability (CPCC) will be reporting directly to the high representative might make the strucutre difficult to manage. It might be more efficient to have these two units put under the supervision of the under secretary general for operations. The current European Commission External Relations units for security policy and crisis response and peacebuilding should also join the same cluster. The lack of civilian expertise within the existing crisis management directorate will have to be addressed, including at senior level, considering that the large majority of CSDP missions are civilian in nature. And most crucially, each geographical unit must include staff with requisite knowledge and experience in peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

National sensitivities with regard to the role of the EU military personnel and its special relationship with national intelligence services will need to be taken into consideration, keeping military staff as a separate entity, not fully integrated with the rest of the operational structure.

A permanent analytical and planning cell, working directly under the secretary general, should then provide the high representative and the full structure with a permanent set of political analysis of the hot spots around the globe. This cell could play the function of early warning covering more the prevention side of the conflict cycle, allowing the High Representative to see a problem coming before it turns too nasty and trigger all the diplomatic and soft power levers

at her disposal to influence the situation towards a positive outcome.

If the general lines presented by Ms Ashton to the member states last week go in these directions, one can hope that the main goal set by Lisbon will have been achieved: to get a stronger and more efficient EU on the world stage, and not a weaker one.

Polemics around the concrete set-up will certainly go on for a while. Some suggest development ought to be separate from the EEAS, remaining completely within the commission, lest it be politicised. But this argument holds little water: even in the pre-Lisbon set-up, development co-operation always had a political aspect. Arguing that development is an apolitical tool sounds slightly naïve.

And the very idea of Lisbon is actually to put the civil servants in the EEAS in a different position. Instead of functioning as administrators in an institution with numerous impenetrable rules, they should be working for a political appointee who, together with the member states, sets political goals and makes sure the machinery behind responds. That will certainly be quite a change of culture for those coming from the commission, but it is a change

that is necessary to move the EU away from its bureaucratic procrastination and, yes, into the field of politics.

The polemic around development will probably not be the last faultline emerging in the coming weeks as Ashton's proposal moves forwards, and negotiations with the European Parliament continue. But one thing seems reassuring now: Ashton is showing real ambitions for the service. At the beginning of this year, some members of the European

Parliament told her they believed they had more ambitions for her than she actually displayed during her hearings. If she comes out now with a very strong EEAS proposal, let's hope that the voices of these ambitious MEPs back in January will make themselves heard now again, but this time in her favour.

The world is burning and Brussels's endless petty disputes certainly contribute to sending a message that the block is actually unstable.

Alain Délétroz is a vice-president of the International Crisis Group.


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

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