By Dean Carroll
As Catherine Ashton readies herself to wave goodbye to the European External Action Service, speculation over her replacement as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is the talk of the town in Brussels. Will it be someone who actually engages with the media and citizens? Will it be a recalcitrant big beast or another low-key appointment happy to simply assuage member states fearful of national sovereignty being downgraded by the EEAS? And will the new head honcho actually achieve anything in office, given Ashton’s limited legacy?
Well, on the last point, things are not quite so clear cut. After all, Ashton has secured a long-awaited agreement on normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo. She effectively marshalled talks between Iran and the West. And the EEAS has been crucial in the fight against piracy in Somalia. Even in Libya, Ashton is held in high regard. But, the truth is, her list of achievements was always going to fit on the back of an envelope. The reason being that the EEAS is another casualty of the institutional turf wars that blight supranational policy-making.
Not only does every move Ashton makes have to be sanctioned by 28 member states – meaning that her ideas go through so many filters that by the time they make it back to her desk, they are unrecognisable – but much of the remit of the EEAS is already performed by the European Commission. So territorial is the commission that anything too radical from Ashton is seen as a power grab. Once your fingers have been burnt a couple of times, you do not feel like repeating the humiliating exercise. Meanwhile, some member state foreign ministries often refuse to do the fundamental things when it comes to collaborative working. For example, many will not even give the EEAS access to basic information. The organisation is consistently denuded of any power it might pretend to project.
A review of the EEAS was conducted in 2013. It was charged with assessing the performance over the last two years at the same time as putting forward recommendations for the future. However, it did not produce any cutting edge conclusions beyond motherhood and apple pie platitudes such as urging the EEAS to “promote closer co-ordination between EU delegations and embassies of member states in third countries, in particular through greater use of joint reports and mutual sharing of information”. For, most EU wonks are in denial. In a video address to the Global Diplomatic Forum last year last year, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy he spoke of the union as a well-established “global actor”. Without a hint of irony, he claimed: “Our countries often find shared decisions within hours.”
We would love to hear about some examples of this organisational efficiency Herman because we cannot think of one. Even EU architect Jean Monnet acknowledged that the European project was a concept that could only move at a pedestrian pace, inching forwards baby step by baby step.
Like any position in public life with a prestigious title and large salary attached, the high rep job will have a long list of applicants. But whoever takes the post can be sure of just two things. First, their reputation will be worse when they leave post than when putting on the hollow crown at the EEAS. Second, they are taking on a poisoned chalice. Of that, there can be no question. So farewell Catherine and good luck to your successor at the EEAS. He or she is certainly going to need it.
Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. You can follow him on Twitter @poljourno and you can follow Policy Review @PolicyRev