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14th Aug 2022

Member states responsible for EU 'single voice'

  • "The high representative has difficulty expressing a common European view if one doesn't exist," David O'Sullivan admits. (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU's ability to speak with one voice on foreign policy is ultimately dependent on member states, with the European External Action Service (EEAS) to act as a "facilitator" a senior official has said.

The comments by EEAS chief operating officer David O'Sullivan come amid intense debate over the organisation's job description, with top official Catherine Ashton recently subject to criticism.

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"At the end of the day, it's the member states that decide whether they want to speak with one voice, and there are moments when there are divergences," O'Sullivan told EUobserver in an interview last week (10 May).

"The high representative has difficulty expressing a common European view if one doesn't exist."

The seasoned EU official, who previously worked under Ashton in the commission's trade department [see video below], said Europe had adopted a more unified voice over the past decade, although the bloc's handling of the Libyan crisis was a notable exception.

"It is our hope that the service will facilitate this process … we cannot at the end of the day change fundamental disagreements between member states," he said.

Others would like to see a more authoritative Ashton however, one that knocked heads together and came up with proposals until a common EU line was agreed.

In an email to colleagues on Tuesday, German Green MEP Franziska Brantner said: "Cathy Ashton is failing to grasp what her job is."

"Instead of proactively forging common positions, she passively waits until EU governments have outlined their positions, the lowest common denominator of which she then presents as her proposal."

Days earlier, Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere spoke of his "impatience".

"We have always wanted the external action service to be the central axis around which member states can organize. But in the absence of a central axis which makes analysis and draws conclusions quickly, it's the Germans today, and tomorrow the French or the English who take part of this role," he told Le Soir, a Belgian daily.

The foreign minister also called into the question the service's long-term policy planning, describing documents he read during Belgium's recent EU presidency as "disappointing".

Much of the service's attentions have been necessarily directed towards other matters, with the organisational structure needing to be set up, in order to effectively react to the almost daily crises on the world stage, said O'Sullivan.

On top of this, Ashton and the service have taken over the chairing of the foreign affairs council and the EU's political and security committee, and must equally manage the corps' 136 delegations overseas.

"I think it would be naïve to say after 100 days that we have designed a strategy for the next five to 10 years, because we haven't frankly," conceded O'Sullivan.

He predicts this part of the service's activity will really start next spring when the internal structure of the EEAS is fully established.

The eventual moving of service staff into a single building on Rond-Point Schuman is also likely to be a turning point, with employees from old commission departments and the council's secretariat currently spread out across Brussels.

"They are still in the same buildings doing pretty much the same work that they were before the service was created," O'Sullivan said.

"There isn't even a geographical move to symbolise the bringing together of the service."

Watch a day in the life of David O'Sullivan

Watch a day in the professional life of David O'Sullivan. Having worked in the European institutions for over 30 years, today the seasoned EU civil servant is the chief operating officer in the EU's diplomatic service, the EEAS. In this video, he talks to EUobserver about his past, his present, his relations with Catherine Ashton and the impact of the EU on his native Ireland.

Watch more EUobserver videos here.

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