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Where is Europe’s Foreign Policy?

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BRUSSELS – In the 18 months since the Lisbon Treaty created the European Union’s diplomatic service – the European External Action Service (EEAS) – there has been more talk than ever of Europe having a “single voice” in world affairs. The service became an urgent necessity with the “Arab Spring” roiling the southern Mediterranean region. But a “foreign ministry” is not a foreign policy, and there is little sign that the EU will devise one anytime soon.

The mixed and even contradictory reactions of different EU governments to the Arab popular revolts have highlighted the lack of a common external policy. But they have also hidden a much more significant shortcoming: no one in Brussels has been charged with setting out Europe’s overall aims and concerns, or with analyzing its strengths and weaknesses in a fast-changing world.

A European foreign policy isn’t only about how the EU reacts to events, important as that is. For a bloc comprising a half-billion people, foreign policy should represent and defend a wide range of interests that until now have been the responsibility of its member governments.

The EU has long recognized the need for a concerted foreign policy to complement its international trade, anti-trust, and development policies. And establishing one received a major boost from Europeans’ deepening security concerns during George W. Bush’s presidency, when American unilateralism was rampant. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), first outlined a decade ago, was intended to complement the EU’s economic “soft power”; with the Lisbon treaty, the CFSP became more ambitious still.

As ever, the chief problem is the EU’s 27 national governments. The EU’s authorities in Brussels do not have a structured approach to international relations that is generally acceptable to them, or that can be scrutinized and modified by legitimately interested parties in politics, business, and civil society. But, in a globalizing world, the EU-based companies and industries that are crucial to Europeans’ well-being are less and less national, which means that individual EU governments’ diplomatic strength is insufficient to the tasks at hand.

European disarray over Libya has shown how difficult it is for EU governments to find common cause, even on urgent and high-profile foreign-policy challenges. And the NATO mission to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime is just the beginning; the Arab spring will pose much more complex questions about where Europe’s longer-term interests lie. Sooner or later, the various bilateral European-Arab economic and energy relationships that have long lain undisturbed will have to be trashed.

Currently, in its EEAS, the EU has little more than the rudiments of a foreign-relations mechanism; relative to most national foreign services in Europe, it is tiny, with only 1,500 diplomats and an annual budget of less than a half-billion euros. By contrast, Europe’s combined national missions employ 55,000 diplomats and cost €7.4 billion per year.
But the EEAS’s chief weakness is not so much material as intellectual. So far, the service’s focus has been on its own construction, including the turf wars and bureaucratic infighting that have marked the European Commission’s resistance to its new rival. Its chief, Baroness Catherine Ashton, has also attracted criticism – not always fair, though it remains true that she has not gotten “European diplomacy” off to a fast start.

What objectives should the EEAS, with its 130 overseas missions, be pursuing? For example, will it intervene when European industrial or energy interests are threatened? There has been no sign of this yet, but these are areas that almost all EU national governments jealously guard, even though they lack the EU’s collective clout.

No crystal ball is needed to know that intensifying global resource competition means that Europeans must use their combined weight in world markets, and in dealing with emerging economic giants in Asia and elsewhere. So the next step for the EEAS should be to sit down with Europe’s major business groupings to define and prioritize problem areas.

Where will EU companies need clearer investment conditions, stricter intellectual-property protection, and fully transparent regulations? China and parts of Africa come to mind, but what about the Arab world? To help stabilize more democratic and market-driven Arab countries, Europe must redouble its investments there, but it must also define the rules that it wants in place. The EU’s most recent response has been a “new, ambitious, and revitalized neighborhood strategy” that added a very modest €1.5 billion to the €5.7 billion already earmarked for Arab countries.

The “Asian century” will be a bleak one for Europe unless it develops a genuinely common economy and acts collectively on the international stage. European governments need to see themselves as others do, particularly in the US. Last year, a Brookings Institution report concluded: “It is clear that the EU’s foreign policy has evolved as a patchwork, an ugly amalgam of different issue areas that were thrown together with little thought to overall strategy.” Europe has done nothing since to change that assessment.

Giles Merritt heads the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe and is Editor of the policy journal Europe’s World.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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