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Can a European diplomatic service really work?

March 10, 2010

As experiments in political unity go, Europe’s External Action Service takes some beating.

The budding diplomatic corps of the European Union, with a name that sounds like an off-shoot of Britain’s SAS, is supposed to represent the unified interests of the EU’s 27 member states to the rest of the world.

With a staff expected to number 6,000, including 3,000 diplomats in more than 120 missions, setting up the EAS is akin to creating a high-powered, multi-lingual, global PR, trade and aid organisation almost overnight. It doesn’t happen very often. And perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not very easy to do.

The person responsible for overseeing it is Britain’s Catherine Ashton, a former hospital administrator and EU trade commissioner who is now the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

Ashton laid out some of her vision for the EAS to the European Parliament on Wednesday, calling it a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to build an organisation that brings the EU’s political strategy together in one place. But she also acknowledged some of the difficulties she faces.

“Any time you create something new, there will be resistance,” she said. “This is a huge chance for Europe. We should not lower our ambitions but rather give ourselves the means to realise them. This is a moment to see the big picture, be creative and take collective responsibility.”

She was referring, almost inevitably, to the infighting that has already engulfed the service, with EU member states, the European Parliament and the European Commission, the body that drafts and enforces EU rules, scrapping over who should have the most say in how the EAS is structured and run.

One area of tension is whether the Commission can let go of some of its core areas of competence, such as trade and overseas aid, and leave policy setting and implementation up to the new foreign service. Another is how much input smaller countries in the EU, such as Lithuania and Estonia, are going to have in the leadership of major EU missions abroad. Do their national foreign policies suddenly get subsumed into EU foreign policy? And what’s the official language of the EAS going to be? French or English?

All those issues — and plenty more that are too nitty-gritty to mention — need to be resolved by the end of April, the deadline Ashton originally set for getting the ‘structure and scope’ of the EAS finalised, and one that already looks likely to be missed.

It may take many years before the EAS is up and running smoothly, delivering a cohesive EU foreign policy to the world and being dealt with in return as the representative body of 27 European countries. And even then big EU states with long foreign policy histories such as Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are going to be running their own diplomatic networks in parallel with the EAS, and will more than likely be giving them far more importance.

Will the EAS succeed? As Ashton herself told the parliament on Wednesday: “If we get it right, as we must, then we will be able to shape a European foreign policy for the 21st century… one where we mobilise all our levers of influence — political, economic, development and crisis management tools — in a coordinated way.”

She didn’t say what would happen if she got it wrong.

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