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Wanted: EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security

July 26, 2013

Person specification for the High Representative – Vacant at Christmas 2014

Baroness Ashton will step down as High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security, and First Vice President of the Council – effectively the closest the EU has to a minister of foreign affairs, at the end of 2014. Ashton’s term has been a difficult one: she was not an obvious candidate for the job based on her previous experience and networks; the job itself was ill-defined and beset by the complicated and hypocritical politics of the EU during an inward-facing time of budget constraints; and she is head of a department which barely existed when she took office, thus has had inevitable teething problems.

I leave it to others to evaluate and assess Ashton’s performance, and to discuss the political intrigues around the selection of her replacement. Here I attempt to ignore the politics and consider the basic skills, talent and experience needed for success by the next person to occupy the role, who will need to:

  • Provide leadership to an under-resourced External Action Service (EEAS) and to the EU’s delegations around the world
  • Chair and lead the Foreign Affairs Council
  • Create a sense of mission for the EEAS, build support for it among a variety of stakeholders including member states, the EC, and the European Parliament
  • Carve out a role for the EU as a whole on a number of important issues and make enough progress on those issues to foster a sense of respect for the office and the EEAS, and thus create demand for further involvement
  • Based on comparative advantage, create synergy with other parts of the EU as well as other actors, thus maximising beneficial outcomes in an efficient way – this will necessarily involve mobilising member state resources and resources from parts of the EU not under her direct control
  • And most importantly, make a difference in the places and on the issues on which she and the EU engage.

What are the issues likely to demand her attention? Events are hard to predict precisely over the five-year term starting 2015, but we can be fairly confident that she’ll need to lead and draw together policy and take action in a number of difficult areas:

  • The EU’s neighbourhood will remain a troubled one. The Arab Spring will be long drawn-out, and the EU must not only provide humanitarian support to people displaced and otherwise affected by conflict, it has to provide a political response to the waves of change and/or repression in the Middle East and North Africa; and quite possibly other parts of Africa too. Relations with countries of the ex-USSR are also important, and the EU can help shape the prospects for peace and democratic evolution in the South Caucasus and elsewhere. The High Representative can provide important leadership in seeking the right balance between Europe’s need for a stable neighbourhood in the short term and its need for a more democratic neighbourhood in the medium and long term; meanwhile ensuring that member states apply the much-touted “European values” – openness, tolerance, liberal democracy, free trade, etc. – rather than just realpolitik in their dealings with neighbourhood countries.
  • Meanwhile international terrorism waged by Islamists will remain an issue. Here again the HR has an important leadership role to play, as countries like Mali and Pakistan risk being shattered by the fight between international Islamists and the “international community” played out on their soil. Member states if left to themselves will doubtless err on the side of their own homeland security when weighing up their options for intervention in such countries, and the High Representative can play an important role reminding them of the need for a more balanced and holistic approach which responds to the needs and interests of Malians, Pakistanis and other non-EU citizens as well.
  • The international discussion about what replaces the Millennium Development Goals post-2015 will be all but over by the time the new High Representative takes up her job. But the discussion and debate will not be resolved and needs to continue. This is about moving towards a global consensus about what kind of world we and our children will live in. Clearly we have not yet reached the “end of history”, and there is no way to have global agreement on such an ideologically charged and political topic. So far the EU, taken as a whole, has been spectacularly behind the curve in this discussion, treating it more as a technical conversation about aid than a debate about progress, peace, values, collaboration and human rights. The EU is primarily a soft power institution, enabling change through trade, aid and by modelling collaborative approaches to difficult issues. With 20% of the world’s output, 15% of the world’s population and a long, diverse and tested experience of liberal democracy, surely the EU and thus its High Representative should have a significant voice on what kind of world we want to shape?
  • … A critical element of which is what to do about climate change, an issue on which, whatever the flaws in the design of its own carbon credits system, the EU has at least taken a lead internally. Again, this is at least partly a soft power issue: while the hard economic aspects of climate mitigation will be fiercely held onto by member state governments, the EU as a whole could potentially play a leading global role in defining and supporting careful mitigation and adaptation. This can be done partly through aid, but there is more than money at stake, as progressive adaption approaches which combine effectiveness and fairness are not always obvious, and ideas leadership is still badly needed.
  • Finally, an important outward facing aspect of the EU is through trade. The role and behaviour of large European companies abroad can be critical in determining prospects for development, peace and prosperity in third countries; and the EU’s regulations not only govern the behaviour of such companies but also apply to non-EU companies which trade with or are listed in the EU. Therefore there is an important potential role for the High Representative ensuring coherence across the EU’s regulations and institutions which govern trade.

So what kind of person are we Europeans looking for in our new High Representative?

The person who can address the internal and external issues raised above, in the circumstances of the next few years, as the High Representative’s office and EEAS continue to be established and consolidated will not, I think, be a classic foreign policy egotist able to impose his will in the manner of a Tony Blair. The picture I am forming is of a person with more “feminine” characteristics: a consensus builder rather than a dealmaker. But it will have to be a leader willing to take a personal risk that she can bring other stakeholders on board for her strategic choices, including the various EU foreign ministries with their different expectations and jealousies; thus will need a good sense of strategic and tactical nous, and a willingness to fail.

She probably also needs to be an experienced and knowledgeable player on global issues, rather than a domestic politician. She’ll excel at building a loyal and dedicated team to whom she can delegate, containing knowledge on the kinds of issues listed above as well as on the less core issues which do not require her attention.

Above all she’ll be a person who understands the need for the EU to continue reaching out to the rest of the world from a perspective of its liberal values of tolerance, openness and free trade.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2013 12:04 am

    To anybody out there thinking of a career within the security
    field, my advice is Go Ahead! You can meet wonderful
    people, find out lots and never look back.
    So much better than a monotonous 9-5er!

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  1. The case for the EU having an external action service | Dan Smith's blog

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