The State of the Disunion – Inconsistency Backfires on European Union’s Foreign Policy

Posted on | april 12, 2011 | No Comments

The revolutionary uprisings in North Africa have been a true earthquake for Europe’s foreign policy standing in the region. The way how the EU reacted on this critical challenge tells a lot about the state of disunion in regard to its foreign policy. Both individual EU Member States and the EU itself were slow to react to the events in Tunisia and Egypt. European leaders have been unable to agree on a foreign policy line or to speak with a single voice. The dissonance of voices over the unrest, various passive statements, and the only carefully encouragement for regime change were contradicting the EU’s ambitions to be a key player in the neighboring region.

Moreover, this was the first test for the EU’s foreign policy and new diplomatic service after the enforcement of the Lisbon Treaty. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was absent while the revolts continually unfolded in Tunisia and Egypt. In regard to the ongoing mass protests, Ashton’s “lowest common denominator” statements have been internally and externally criticized. The Union struggled to find the right balance between supporting the democratic aspirations and exercising diplomatic reservation. 

As long as the EU is incapable of responding with a strong voice on urgent external affairs, it should focus on the strengths of the Union instead. Given the seismic change in the region, the EU should revise its Euro-Mediterranean relations and rethink its neighborhood policy in order to prove that maintaining strong partnerships with its neighbors is still a key interest. The EU does not need a single voice to be influential but the Union needs to act with unity. 

Seeking a balanced response – A chronology of dissonance 
The reactions and official statements in Europe have shifted through a number of phases according to the flow of events. When the revolts started in Tunisia in mid-December, Europe was caught completely off-guard and neither the EU nor the EU Member States were prepared for the scenarios developing in the nearby countries. For a long time, the European leaders showed rhetorical restraint towards the popular revolts. The EU needed almost two weeks to agree on calling for free and fair elections in Tunisia. Likewise, Europe was slow to react when the tumults reached Egypt. The European reaction was partially discordant and again the EU leaders failed to take a firm joint position. Only when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an “orderly transition” to democracy, Europe jumped immediately on the bandwagon. “Orderly transition” became the new maxim and Europe’s official comments followed much of the same tame path. The EU “Big Five”, which includes France, Germany, Italy, UK, and Spain, first issued a joint statement calling for a “process of transition.” Still, this statement was ambivalent since it did not call directly for Mubarak to step down, cited the need for “dialogue” with the regime, and encouraged the embracement of “political reforms”. Not surprisingly, not the EU but the national leaders of Europe took the initiative and delivered the long-awaited European statement. On February 4, the 27 EU governments and Catherine Ashton repeated the mantra of supporting a transition process toward democracy but they remained vague about what exactly that meant. Still, the European leaders hesitated to demand the resignation of President Mubarak out of concern that the disruption in the region could backfire on Europe. Europe was fearful of interfering in the internal affairs of Egypt, a longstanding ally of the West and stability factor in the region. Some EU leaders, among them German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were emphasizing the right of the Egyptian people to determine their own future and the idea that the Union neither had the right to demand regime change nor to interfere in domestic issues. 

Europe’s ambiguous and cautious reaction was a balancing act in order to be prepared for every possible outcome of the revolts. The EU proved incapable of expressing its own interests in the region. The EU conferred the lead role to the US, following Obama’s script and patiently waiting for announcements from Washington. Afterward, it was not the EU under the direction of Lady Ashton, but the “Big Five” national states who took the lead. Ashton got left out.
When Catherine Ashton headed off for a tour of North Africa on the 14th to present Egypt and Tunisia with a package of measures, including financial aid, support in preparing for elections, and election monitors to guide the transition process toward democracy, here, again, the EU problems became evident. When the EU’s foreign policy chief visited Tunisia after the Jasmine Revolution other European leaders, including Britain’s foreign minister Hague and the German foreign chief Westerwelle, had been already there. Similiarly, in Egypt, David Cameron and not Ashton was the first Western leader to visit the country. 

Blame on Baroness 
All EU leadership was missing and soon the guilty one was found: High Representative Baroness Catherine Ashton. Throughout the European capitals, the press, politicians – for instance David Cameron –, and EU parliamentarians from all parties (including ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Socialists Martin Schultz, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit from The Greens) blamed Ashton’s and the EU’s low-key role. European decision-makers were surprisingly united in their critiques. They all shared the same opinions regarding the lack of a coherent European message and the invisible role of EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton. 

Much criticism is centered on the new EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs. Dissatisfaction over the EU’s role in North Africa is related to Ashton’s absence since she might have missed the opportunity to react in the name of the Union. Indeed, Ashton did not have much support when she started her new post one year ago. Baroness Ashton lacks of experience in international diplomacy. She is unknown in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow and unpopular in Brussels. A new survey by Burson Marsteller revealed that more than 68% respondents rate that Ashton’s track record of keeping her performance up to the standard of her commitments has been “below-average” or “disappointing”. 

A single phone number but no single voice
The Lisbon Treaty should have brought the necessary powers and competency to Brussels in order to design a new, coherent European foreign policy. High expectations were vested in the communitarisation with the appointment of a foreign affairs chief and development of diplomatic services. The new post of the High Representative should, according to the Treaty, “ensure the consistency of the Union’s external action” and, thus, should enable the Union to have its own phone number and a single voice with which to speak. 

Baroness Ashton invested a great deal of time to build up the European External Action Service (EEAS) in that, over the last year, she managed its development, structure, and staffing. The EEAS started operating only in the beginning of 2011. The newborn EEAS has potential but it is too early for the service to be able to ease the transition in Egypt and in Tunisia. Still, many features about the collaboration with other diplomatic services and the goals of this external relations service are still unclear. So far, the creation of these structures has not yet led to a more coherent, visible, and integrated EU foreign policy. De facto, the formal transfer of competences over to Brussels has not changed a lot. 

When the “Big Five” issued their shared position it showed, on the one hand, its dominance in foreign affairs issues and that the discourse is still dominated by national voices. However, on the other hand, it also showed that Europe cannot wait until 27 governments find a shared position when a statement is needed quickly. It takes too long to find a common policy without a clear hierarchy. Ashton has to maneuver among all EU Member States. She needs to deliver a statement that represents the views of all countries. This compromise must satisfy the leaders of the Member States and their foreign ministers, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, and President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, all of whom have their own foreign policy goals. In the recent case, Ashton’s statement was well-balanced between those various positions. She spoke for the lowest common denominator between all EU states, and consequently, the content often remains vague. Therefore, it is not only a defeat for Ashton but also for the slow-moving European Union in general. For too long, the debate over the EU’s foreign policy was too long focused on the battle between the intergovernmental and the supranational sphere, and neglected issues regarding improved decision-making strategies, clarification of the EU foreign policy mission, and determining what added value the institutions could provide. 

Remember, the appointment of Ashton was the very outcome of the EU’s complicated decision-making process where 27 puzzle pieces had to be fit together and a long game of diplomatic trade-offs between UK, Germany and France was played. With this compromise nomination, the leaders of the big powers could feel assured that it would not impinge their own national foreign policy ambitions and their sovereignty. The EU heavyweights got what they wanted without substantial loss of individual power. Without the support of the national governments and the European leaders, Ashton does not have the necessary trust, standing, and political influence to deliver a strong and substantial message in the name of the EU. It poses a dilemma for the EU that Europe lacks a visible face that represents the continent and is backed by all national powers. Similarly, the EU’s policies and statements cannot be more than the compromise of 27 Member States. The framing of the EU as normative power is just the outcome of basic European values which should be preserved. Without clear foreign policy priorities and common strategic interests, the Union will be regarded solely as a club of states with shared principles and values, high ideals and grand vision. Thus, even if Europe has finally has a phone number, there is not much of a reason to call.

Grand Ambitions or Small Steps
The upheavals in North Africa represented the first genuine test of the abilities of EU foreign policy and the EEAS after the Lisbon Treaty came into force. The inability of the EU to cope with and adapt to the revolutionary events in Tunisia and Egypt had damaging consequences for the credibility of Europe in the Southern Mediterranean region. It has undermined the EU’s appeals for change and will not help to assert Europe’s power in the world. The EU’s disorganized response to the revolts in North Africa proved that the new structures in Brussels have not fundamentally changed the EU foreign policy. New structures and processes cannot deal with the dilemma if there is no streamlined European voice. One could predict that Europe will not manage to agree on a single voice for foreign policy in the foreseeable future. The primacy of the national states in foreign affairs will prevail and it is illusionary that sovereign member states will give the EU exclusive powers on critical external policy issues in the short-term. While the 27 EU governments agree on many aspects regarding the overall direction and values of the foreign affair policies, they do not all have the same strategic interests. More political commitments and a common will would be needed to change this. 

The lack of a strong, clear voice has eroded the Union’s credibility throughout the Southern neighbourhood. Europe risks permanently damaging its long-term interests in a region that is also vital for its future. Even if the events in the Mediterranean region will have some impact on the way that European Union foreign policy is made, the EU must acknowledge that its ability to react assertively to those events will be limited if it does not have effective leadership . However, this does not have to be a major problem as long as the EU can agree on a single strategic response to the revolutions in the region and act accordingly. Since the revolts carry unpredictable consequences for the whole Arab world, a coherent strategy to stabilize the countries and prevent a return to authoritarianism or extremism is more important than ever. The EU should focus on the strengths and potential of the EU soft policies. Traditional cooperation and partnership tools, economic and cultural partnerships, trade and development funding, support for civil society, and the strengthening of democratic institutions have been consistent features of EU’s relations with foreign countries and regions. The EU’s broad mix of bilateral and multilateral instruments and unique net of diplomatic relations gives the Union a strong position in the world. In addition, if another lessons should be learned from this crisis then it is that the EU has to determine how it could react to crises in a more timely and coherent manner. A task-force, headed by the EU High Representative and composed of EU leaders (for instance Barroso and Van Rompuy) and national governments representatives (for example the foreign minister of the EU presidency), that is trusted to by all national leaders to represent Europe as a whole should be created to response to international crisis events.

AUTHOR: Moritz Schneider
E-MAIL: Schneider [at]


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