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Defining the pathways between the different buildings of the EU: the EEAS one year on

February 10, 2012

At the end of last year the European External Action Service celebrated its first full year in operation. During that time it has established and largely staffed its organogram, absorbed 140 EC delegations as EU embassies, integrated a large number of staff and units from existing EC departments, and of course engaged in a fair number of external initiatives on behalf of the EU institutions and member states. Sometime in 2012 it should move into its own building, rather than lodging in the spare rooms of eight different premises in Brussels. The service has around 1550 staff in Brussels, with a further 2050 or so in embassies abroad.


It would be no exaggeration to say the leadership and staff of the service were dealt a difficult hand. Pre-existing EU institutions and of course some of the member states have conspired to limit the room for manoeuvre and the mandate of the High Representative and her staff – and have then added insult to injury by slamming the European External Action Service for its inability to live up to its name. A simple way to caricature the problem is to say that the Council has the political clout, the Commission has the money, and the EEAS gets the problems others don’t want, but without the tools and resources to solve them; has humbly to request resources from the others when they ask it to act; and then gets kicked in the teeth for not doing enough, quickly enough. To quote one recent source: “Throughout [2011], the UK led a diplomatic guerrilla campaign to block the EEAS… from speaking on behalf of the EU at the UN or the OSCE, even where precedents existed”.


As far as I can tell, the EEAS gets to run the embassies abroad, which are then staffed by Commission personnel who have control of the development funding through which the EU makes friends. Meanwhile the French and UK embassies just down the road in the various foreign capitals not surprisingly run their own foreign policy including aid programmes, under no apparent obligation to collaborate with their EU colleagues. It’s tempting to suggest that the creators of the EEAS set out to establish a service which would only ever partially succeed, would seldom have the space or resources to fail, but might just muddle through to add value from time to time, under good leadership and with good staff.


The High Representative herself has come in for a great deal of personal criticism, for neglecting this or that key project or issue, and other assorted errors of omission and commission. Her neglect of security issues appears to be the number one criticism from member states, but they have also attacked her leadership on both style and substance. In December she published a long, rather defensive report  of what the service has so far done, and a reminder of how constrained it has been by its own circumstances, especially when faced with the foreign and internal challenges that 2011 threw up. Her report could hardly be accused of being inspirational – but then again, no-one with power actually wants her to be inspirational… She seems rather stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.


From a peacebuilder’s perspective, the EEAS probably should have been set up with a more evident capacity for peacebuilding than it has. Many argued for the establishment of a head of peacebuilding at a very senior level. Instead, it was decided to integrate peacebuilding into the service’s other departments: to mainstream it, if you will. Fine with me: I’m no expert in how to set up a multilateral foreign affairs department, and happy to judge the EEAS on its results and outcomes, rather than on the shape of its organogram.


One year on

One year is far too early to measure success or failure definitively. Nevertheless, at the end of 2011 a number of reviews were published, looking back at and assessing the EEAS’s first year. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Chatham House, The Quaker Council for European AffairsConcord, and the European Council on Foreign Relations were just a few of the organisations which published views. What these have in common is a sense that although the EEAS has got a few things right, for example its coordination role vis-à-vis the Arab Spring, and briefings on some other specific crises, it could and should have done better. Putting aside narrow special interest issues, the essence of their criticism seems to be as follows.


First, it’s widely recognised the service was constrained from the start – with what the Carnegie Endowment politely calls “a number of design flaws” – and that member states and other EU institutions have continued to squeeze its room for manoeuvre. But conspiracy is not the answer to everything; there’s also plain old disorganisation, with for example no proper secure communications system yet in place.  Martina Weitsch on her blog describes some of the bureaucratic nonsense in detail and if she is (as she usually is) right in her facts, then she is also right to see it as “scandalous” and “beyond belief”.


Second, there is insufficient leadership, nor any clear strategy, with the service at times just picking up titbits others don’t want, or issues others fear they’ll fail at. Yes, the EU now has a recognised place in the UN, which is all very well. But did it really make sense for the EEAS to take responsibility for finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue on behalf of the UNSC? Surely that is a task best achieved – if by anyone – by a more experienced outfit than a new, highly constrained service in its infancy.


Third, the embassies are understaffed (it is claimed that some have only the Ambassador and no other substantive EEAS staff at all – just staff from other EU departments often working in an uncoordinated and incoherent way); and are wrongly distributed, for example far too thin on the ground in the BRICS countries and the Arab Gulf states.


Fourth, the service has been underwhelming in its delivery. Even though all the commentators modify their criticism by saying “it’s only one year old”, they still claim it should have done better and more in response to the economic crisis and the Arab Spring, for example; and they seem unanimous that it should have done more on security.


Fifth, the service has failed to create functional links with the Member States – as evidenced by 12 member state foreign ministers writing a “non-paper” of complaint. A very basic criticism is that the monthly meetings of EU foreign ministers are poorly prepared and chaired; and that the EU’s “demarches” (positions) are being elaborated and presented by its embassies without prior coordination with member states.



What are their proposals?

For someone like me who has followed the establishment of the EEAS with no more than half an eye, all these criticisms ring truly enough, though it’s hard to know which is caused by which, and who is at fault. It all seems like a fairly well-woven web of mutually reinforcing constraints. I am, however struck that very few of the commentators seem to draw much attention to the EEAS’ role in building peace; nor are they suggesting the EEAS should be closed down. Of course, they provide a set of recommendations for improvements, of which the main threads emerge fairly naturally from their criticisms.


They say there’s a need to enhance the buy-in and coherence of EEAS-implemented actions by and with the member states and other EU institutions. Practically, this might mean increased involvement of member state foreign ministers in EEAS interventions, and filling more EEAS positions with officials on secondment from member states’ civil servants. It also means taking steps to improve the coherence between diplomacy and the other external instruments (trade, energy, development aid, environment), both conceptually, at policy level, and in practice in Brussels and on the ground.


They go on to add the need to provide leadership and set clear priorities. Some – notably Chatham House – call for the elaboration of an EU “Grand Strategy” – and this might be focused on security. Others of course think the focus should not ignore their own issue, so Concord for example wants the High Representative to take more of a lead on poverty reduction.


Next, the EEAS is urged to “get the basics right”, e.g. by streamlining decision-making for rapid response, sorting out bureaucracy and lines of command, getting the computers working, improving staffing procedures, and so on.



At the risk of repeating and/or mangling what others have written and said, three main conclusions come to mind.


1. Those with the power and control to shape the EEAS really ought to get real. In a national context, what would be the point of setting up a foreign office, only to narrow the space available for its ministers and its staff to act to a mere sliver? Similarly – perhaps even more so – in a multilateral context. Not that the EEAS can expect to play the same role as a national ministry of foreign affairs: that’s out of the question, as the member states’ own  foreign ministries still exist and will continue to do so. But the member states need to clarify, as far as they can, the role available to the High Representative and the EEAS, make it a useful one they can be proud of abroad and at home, provide the financial and human resources needed, and then support and hold them accountable.


2. Develop a “grand strategy”, and make sure it fits with the mandate given and space available. For my money – because yes, my taxes do contribute in small way – this should be about how the EU as an institution born out of war, designed with only one object – peace – in mind and thus in its genes, can contribute to building peace elsewhere in the world through its diplomacy, the careful investment of its overseas development funds, and the shaping of its trade and other policies so they contribute to peace in fragile and conflict-affected countries…


3. … But despite the need for a “grand strategy”, it will take time to develop one, and some of the constraints referred to earlier in this blog may be too firmly cemented in place for the time being. So for now, what matters is pragmatism on the part of the leadership and staff of the EEAS, and a willingness just to get on with it. Syria is falling apart. The revolution in Egypt risks fading away. The people of Congo, Guinea and Burma and elsewhere need careful and conflict-sensitive support, based on careful context analysis and implementation expertise which the EU should be able to supply and/or support. The EEAS, armed with some clever staff, their expert external networks, flexible finance mechanisms like the Instrument for Stability, and the potential for operational partnerships with member state foreign and prime ministers with a capacity for international leadership and mediation, can do a great deal to help and support them, even while waiting for new mandates or grand strategies to be elaborated and agreed.


There’s a famous story (perhaps true, perhaps not) beloved of MBA professors about a new university campus that was built in the USA. After the construction was more or less complete, the Board of Regents was shown round the campus by the chief architect. At the end of tour, one of the regents congratulated the architects on a job well done.


“I’m impressed” she said, “but I just have one question”.


“Go ahead”, replied the architect.


“Well, I love the buildings, and you’ve designed a beautiful campus worthy of the university’s reputation and an environment conducive to study. But one thing I’ve noticed is that there are no paths connecting the different buildings. Have you forgotten them?”


“Aha!” replied the architect, “I’m glad you brought that up. Our policy is to construct the buildings, and then wait and see which directions the students take as they walk between them. Once they’ve done so, we’ll see where the paths and pavements should be, and we’ll pave them accordingly.”


It’s just so with the EU. Its founders may have designed an imperfect campus, and have perhaps even built the EEAS in the wrong place. But now it’s up to the students and faculty – staff, commissioners, MEPs, member state governments, civil society, business-people and others – to figure out how to join up the various parts to make the externally-facing institutions of the EU work as a whole, to contribute not only to peace within the EU – fulfilling the founders’ intentions – but also elsewhere in the world – fulfilling the spirit of the founders’ dreams.


One Comment leave one →
  1. February 14, 2012 9:54 am

    Being quoted by Phil maybe disqualifies me from commenting. But I just can’t let slip by the opportunity to comment on the famous story about university architecture. The architect says that they ‘wait and see where the students walk’; waiting and seeing requires actively looking and taking notice of what one sees.
    One of the criticisms of the EEAS leadership from many different quarters – and in my view with some justification – has been that they are not really engaging in alliance building or even just seeing where people are going/listening to what people are saying.
    So maybe in addition to the imperfect architecture we surely have we also need to flag up the need for a listening process which includes all the actors Phil lists in his final paragraph.
    Of course, the EU has a commitment to structured dialogue with a range of actors. Speaking strictly for civil society, there is Article 11 (2) of the Treaty on European Union which states:
    ‘The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society.’
    The EEAS would do well to engage in such dialogue at a more senior level than it does at present and to communicate in some intelligible way that they actually hear what is said and value what they hear.

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