The EU's new External Action Service: what would success look like?

Plans for the EEAS seem to include innovative units for conflict prevention, security and stability. It is worth considering what kind of agenda we would like to see implemented by a thoughtful new global actor oriented in this direction
Dan Smith
8 September 2010

The EU is not a state and will never be one, but nor is it just a multilateral organisation or a trading bloc. It is itself, sui generis. It has huge economic weight its political decision-makers often find hard to deploy. At its best the EU - and the EU’s External Action Service (EAS) on the EU’s behalf - can be:

▪  More focused, bold and cohesive than the UN or the OSCE;

▪  Broader ranging in geography and issues than NATO;

▪  Admittedly slower, less targeted and with lower impact than a major state ;

▪  But also less selfish, flighty and fickle than most states (including its own members).

At the same time, no other major global actor has such a central and durable interest in building a world system based on the rule of law. For big and medium powers, interest comes first and commitment to the rule of law is contingent upon that, while, by definition, small powers are not global actors. The UN is global and law-committed but it is a forum rather than an actor; as a world body, it is no more than the sum of its heterogeneous states (and sometimes less). Its agencies depend for their continued operations on relations with states whose attitude to international law ranges from conditional via negligent to contemptuous.

The EU is a global actor in which the commitment to international law is hard-wired through the pooling of sovereignty that membership entails. This pooling makes sense in its own terms given the general benefits of EU membership. But it makes most sense in a world in which state sovereignty is more effectively constrained by international law than today.

For the EAS these considerations add up to prioritising an approach based on the long-term.  It means specialising in playing the long game. As the EU’s external face, the EAS will have a broader range of capabilities than most of its member states and more underlying policy durability than any of them.

Thus, an EU service dedicated to conflict prevention, security and stability must be able to interpret and operationalise each of these terms in a long-range perspective. When crises arise as they must, crisis response has to be focused on actions within that long-lasting framework, avoiding the temptation of simply chasing after events.

This is the ambition behind the service Cathy Ashton, Europe's first High Representative for Foreign Affairs, is setting up. What does she need to do in order to achieve it? Pretty obviously, she needs to get the set-up right and she needs some early successes.

As to the set-up, the central question is whether to try to mainstream peace and security issues or to set up a separate section. Cathy Ashton has clearly gone for mainstreaming. That’s to be commended for avoiding the risk of marginalizing the issues and the long-term approach. But there is a problem: long-term approaches to peace and security do not mainstream themselves across a service, especially one whose initial recruitment is inevitably and rightly of people who are well-established in their careers. So there are a couple of things to do – or get done – as the service approaches cruising speed late this or early next year.

First, Cathy Ashton needs to find an institutional home for a core team that acts as a centre of excellence on conflict prevention, security and stability within the service. If she doesn’t do that at the outset, long-term conflict approaches will be sidelined by the press of events and the dominance of crisis-response among her staff, on her agenda, in politics, among her international counterparts, in the air she breathes. To ensure the banner her service carries is not mere fluttering decoration she will set up some sort of special section eventually. Better sooner than later, I reckon.

Second, there’s the staff. To make sure that a viable conflict prevention strategy colours everything the service does, it has to be embedded in professional formation – in recruitment, career path, incentives and succession. Absorbing and operationalising it need to be among the criteria for reward and promotion. And it needs to be started now because it will be much harder to do it as an after-thought.

What success might look like

How would success look – that is, how will we know that the EAS is fulfilling the mission? What are reasonable criteria or expectations?

Thinking about the initial timeframe to mid-2013 when Cathy Ashton will present a major interim report, I would suggest two indicators:

1. What you might call a “good” crisis – i.e., a response to immediate events that shows the EAS and the High Rep herself bring something new to the table of international politics. Responding to a humanitarian disaster, whether natural or caused by war, with not just emergency relief but a long recovery and reconstruction plan would fit the bill.

2. Matching promise to delivery on, let’s say, two big issues. The EU is good at mouthing off, but the implementation is often deficient. The member states can usually agree to cover their differences with careful wording, but that paper over their cracks splits when the action gets started. If Cathy Ashton can conquer the internal divisions enough to produce consistency between the word and the deed -  that will be some achievement indeed.

So what would be appropriate issues on which to seek this consistency? I might say trade, not least because Cathy Ashton has considerable competence in that area, having been EC Trade Commissioner. However, trade remains a Commission area (or “competence”) so freedom of action here is limited for the EAS. I might also say relations in the EU’s neighbourhood would be a fruitful area of engagement, but these have also been removed from the EAS’s purview and put under the Enlargement DG (which, by the way, gives a confusing and even misleading message to, for example, the governments and people of the South Caucasus). I might also say the Middle East because an EU policy that implemented EU law in relation to Israel and Palestine is an outcome devoutly to be desired – but I think it’s also too high a bar by which to measure the EAS’s effectiveness because the role of the US is always the most important external consideration.

But there are plenty of other areas and issues where the EU needs to raise its game. Pick two from the following long-term security-related themes and regional issues:

▪                Climate change: Ref Copenhagen, the existing negotiating mechanism is bust. The EAS should not focus on designing a new one but rather on the complex diplomacy of constructing a coalition for a progressive response to climate change that includes mitigation, greening the economy and support for adaptation to face the impact of climate change, especially in developing countries. NEEDED: technical expertise, long view, diplomacy, financial ingenuity, huge sums of money.

▪                Relations with China: Now the second biggest economy in the world, un-ignorable on most major issues including climate change and trade, and increasingly a likely partner in building durable international trading relations and structures, as long as its concerns are not sidelined. NEEDED: long pragmatic view, deep understanding of China, tough diplomacy, capacity to link up diverse policy areas.

▪                Relations with Russia: Also un-ignorable, though those of its actions that are most important for the EU take place in a somewhat narrower framework of issues and regions than China’s. This is more than a question of energy security, which seems to be the filter through which many EU policy makers see the relationship with Russia, and also more than an issue of human rights, which is how many others seem to see it. The key question and challenge is how to construct a security partnership in the huge swathe of territory from southeastern Europe, through the southern Caucasus, the northern rim of the Middle East and Central Asia. NEEDED: deep multi-regional historical knowledge, long-term approach, solid diplomacy, tough-minded prioritisation.  

▪                Africa policy: Africa’s national and regional political institutions continue to be weaker than they need to be even if in many aspects they are getting stronger than they were. Powerful outsiders can therefore pick off what they want in Africa without helping on issues such as trade fairness, investment incentives, infrastructure and governance. The EU knows how to deliver development aid projects but, like other donors and outsiders, has little idea about how to support the development process in Africa. Putting that right is ambitious, and therefore slow, and also essential so it should start now. NEEDED: bold vision, clarity on objectives, coalition building, shedloads of money.

▪                The EU’s energy economy: The IEA estimates that meeting world energy needs and restricting carbon emissions requires investment in all forms of energy infrastructure amounting to $36.5 trillion by 2030 – i.e., about $1.8 trillion a year on average. In the long-run, that huge investment will generate profits, but mobilising it in the first place is the big issue. Unless the international energy market goes green of itself at an unfeasibly high speed, this is a deeply political issue. Inaction will lead to crises mounting year by year but inaction is the default mode for individual states. Which makes this an ideal topic on which the EAS should develop solid specialised expertise. NEEDED: capacity to combine knowledge from different fields, credibility so as to generate a shared view of the future, policy innovation, capacity to inspire joint action.

▪                International development: There is a quiet but important role waiting to be carried out. The large number of countries where the EU has a presence, in the form of a Union Delegation that the EAS will be running, means that the EAS is best placed to take this role. The task is to provide coordination and a degree of leadership to EU government donors in developing countries. It is always difficult to carry out the notional commitments to coherence between donor governments unless someone takes the lead. In a few cases, this comes down to a trusted individual from one donor agency taking the lead. In most cases it comes down to nobody doing anything very much - because whatever they talk about when they have their donor liaison meetings, they have to report back and get contradictory sets of advice and instruction from their capitals. Done carefully, the EAS could take the lead. NEEDED: a clear lead and a delegated attention to detail.

It’s a big agenda and this is not the full list of issues on which the world sorely needs a new, thoughtful and firm global actor. But if not the EAS, who? If not now, when?


See the full blog from www.dansmithsblog.com

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