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25th Feb 2024

Finland: EU countries do not want joint foreign policy

  • Ashton and Sovndal in Copenhagen. The pair welcomed defections by senior Syrian regime members (Photo: eu2012.dk)

Finland's foreign minister has said EU countries are more divided on foreign policy now than before the Lisbon Treaty came along.

Erkki Tuomioja made the remarks after informal talks with his EU counterparts in Copenhagen on Friday (9 March) and Saturday.

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"The real problem is with member states and their willingness to work together - this should be a basic pre-condition when we start a discussion on this or that subject, there should be no red lines ... [But] the commitment to this is actually less than it was five years ago. The Lisbon Treaty has given us a new instrument, but this is a matter of political will," he told EUobserver by phone from the Danish capital.

He gave as an example the UK's opposition to opening a joint command centre in Brussels for EU military operations. "The UK is reluctant to go ahead with this but everybody else wants to, so we should move forward," he noted.

The Lisbon Treaty in 2009 called for the creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and a new EU foreign policy chief, a post later filled by British politician Catherine Ashton.

Tuomioja said nobody criticised Ashton at the Copenhagen event despite ups and downs in her first two years in the job. But he added: "We don't speak as openly to each other as we should, even behind closed doors."

In one sign of internal EU politicking, the Financial Times on Friday reported that France and the UK in December had talked about giving Ashton's job to France's EU commissioner Michel Barnier.

British minister William Hague in Copenhagen told a number of his peers the report was "rubbish." But Ashton's staff believe the newspaper was led on by "some mischief maker in London."

A diplomat from another EU country told this website: "It's not the first time this kind of thing has happened before a Gymnich [an informal EU foreign ministers' meeting] ... Someone is interested in weakening her - it might be one of those countries which is not so keen on there being a strong European voice."

He added that Ashton should listen more to small EU countries because they are her "natural allies," while big member states do not want the EEAS to get too powerful. "We don't want to have the feeling that only Paris, Berlin and London are being consulted," he said.

Going back to Tuomioja's point, the contact noted that Slovenia is still blocking an EU asset freeze on Belarus oligarch Yuri Chizh in order to protect a contract between Chizh companies and Slovenian firm Riko Group: "Euro 150 million is not nothing for a country like Slovenia these days."

For her part, Ashton in a pre-Gymnich letter to ministers - seen by EUobserver - set out some ideas on how the EEAS should react to the EU's financial crisis.

She said it should focus on "core issues" - the Middle East Peace Process, Iran, relations with Arab Spring and post-Soviet neighbours, Sahel, Somalia and the Western Balkans. She noted she might make cuts in her Brussels-based operations in order to give extra resources for foreign delegations "where I believe they add more value."

She also mooted the idea of creating "Europe Houses" - grouping together EEAS embassies with member states' embassies and consulates in the same buildings in foreign capitals in order to "save money while enhancing overall EU visibility."

Syria dominated the post-Gymnich press conference.

Ashton and her host, Danish foreign minister Villy Sovndal, welcomed recent defections by high-level officials as a sign that President Bashar Assad's regime is crumbling. "I think now we are seeing a few spots of light in the situation," Sovndal said.

Reports indicate Syria has begun recalling its ambassadors from EU capitals in a move which could be designed to pre-empt their expulsion or to stop them defecting as well.

"The first sign of real trouble for [late Libyan leader] Gaddafi was when his foreign envoys began to abandon him," an EU diplomatic source noted.

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