Lapland’s part in EU foreign policy

March 16, 2010

Last weekend, Finland’s foreign minister gathered six of his colleagues and the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, in the frozen far reaches of Lapland for two days of talks on the future of European foreign policy.

As informal ministerial gatherings go, it was a rather jolly (if cold) affair, complete with a ‘family photo’ taken with a pair of nervous reindeer, a chance to see the northern lights and activities such as skiing, sledging and snow-mobiling. Some of the ministers even brought along their families.

But as well as a relaxing weekend staying in luxurious cabins 250 km inside the Arctic Circle in the village of Saariselka, what exactly is the point?

Alexander Stubb, Finland’s young and energetic foreign minister, well know for doing triathlons and for his near-permanent grin, says such retreats help foreign ministers get to know each other better and allow them to discuss critical issues without outside pressure. First, they don’t have to worry about reaching hard-headed decisions, and equally they don’t have advisers whispering in their ears or minute-takers holding them to their every word. It’s an open-ended chat among colleagues about topics close to their heart. stubb2

France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, and his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini, certainly backed up that impression as they relaxed in jeans and open-necked shirts and chatted openly with a handful of journalists  also invited along. They went snow-mobiling and celebrated Frattini’s 53rd birthday. 

In terms of discussions, the participants — who also included the foreign ministers of Sweden, Spain, Turkey and Estonia — covered everything from the EU’s role in the world to sanctions on Iran, developments in the Middle East and the setting up of a European diplomatic corps. Over dinner of reindeer steaks and Lapland cloudberries, they sought to put the world to right.

But at the back of their minds, they were also worrying about their own futures.

Under the new structures of the European Union — ushered in with the passage of the Lisbon treaty last December — Ashton is in charge of guiding EU foreign affairs. To that extent — and depending on how closely national foreign ministers work with her — she will be taking over many of their responsibilities as she carves out common EU positions on major foreign policy issues. And in any case, many of the biggest decisions in EU foreign affairs are dealth with by heads of state and government, not foreign ministers.

France, Britain, Germany and other larger EU member states may continue to push their own foreign policy agendas with key partners such as Russia and China on a bilateral basis. But within the EU, much of the day-to-day foreign affairs work will be led by Ashton, and smaller EU states, in particular, are likely to see their foreign policy subsumed under the EU banner.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Stubb and some of the other foreign ministers spent time over the weekend discussing with Ashton the need to create EU special envoys on critical foreign policy issues such as the Middle East or Africa. The traditional role of national foreign ministers is being squeezed between Ashton on one side and national leaders on the other, making a special-envoy-type role — with a position like that of Richard Holbrooke in the United States the model to aim for — the next best option.

For Stubb, 41, Lapland might have been about getting a few friends and colleagues away for a weekend of skiing and laid-back conversation on foreign policy. But it might also have provided an opportunity to discuss future job options in his rapidly advancing career.

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