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The EU's two top jobs - visionary choices?

Commentary, 7 December 2009
International Institutions, Europe
The selection of the first permanent President of the European Council and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is intended to usher in a consolidated global presence for the European Union. The choice itself, however, casts a shadow on those intentions as the new foreign and security policy chief is regarded as a relative newcomer.

The selection of the first permanent President of the European Council and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is intended to usher in a consolidated global presence for the European Union. The choice itself, however, casts a shadow on those intentions as the new foreign and security policy chief is regarded as a relative newcomer.

By Kevin Byrne for

Ashton and van Rompuy

The quiet man

The institutional navel-gazing that has been the European Union's primary concern for the past ten years ended on 19 November 2009 with the selection of the first permanent President of the European Council and the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It took no-one by surprise, bar it seems the British media, that Tony Blair was not be made Emperor of Europe. Instead the Presidency went to the consensual, haiku-writing Belgian premier Herman van Rompuy. For those who want a charismatic face for Europe he is a disappointment, indeed it is his intention to 'remain discreet in the media', not a problem since he is known as the 'grey mouse' in his native Belgium.

Yet, discrete does not mean ineffective. Regardless of his position before, he now represents a union of 500 million people, the biggest economy in the world and the largest civilian power. The argument that the person taking on the role needed to be a 'heavy hitter' was always a weak one. The nature of the role is to forge consensus between twenty-seven sovereign states, not to impose diktats. A low profile does not signal lack of vision: how many on the world stage knew of Hu Jintao before he took on the mantle of leadership, or Manmohan Singh for that matter? Van Rompuy reached the highest elected office in his country for precisely the skills needed for his current position. It is wrong to discount him solely for not being Tony Blair - a man vilified by many in Europe, as much as he is respected by others.

In many ways, the EU set itself up for a fall. The title of President is a misleading one. A title should be defined by the role and powers bestowed, not by inference from other holders of the title - in this case the American president. The Lisbon treaty lays out a position that is largely consensual and chairman-like, regardless of the image of a president as a solitary decider.

In any case, for the next two and half years we shall hail to the chief, Herman van Rompuy. While many call it a failure of European ambition, this is in fact a facile conclusion. The EU is at its most effective when the twenty-seven members of the European Council agree and forge a common position, in this regard a gifted consensus builder can have much greater effect than a limelight seeking grandee. Indeed the EU is at its most effective on the world stage when the European Council is in agreement and allows its opinion to be voiced by one leader; you need only look at the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, and the role played by French President Nicolas Sarkozy during his country's Presidency of the EU, to show the potential of the new position.

High Representative or Lowest Common Denominator

The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy position went to a Briton and has been derided by the British media as 'second prize'. Far from a consolation for missing out on the Presidency, the High Representative position is the real prize of the institutional shake-up that is the Lisbon Treaty.

Lady Ashton, the unelected Labour peer, has effectively taken on the combined former roles of Javier Solana and of External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner. She has also acquired a Vice-Presidency within the Commission, as well as the chairmanship of the European Defence Agency, and assumed the leadership of the soon to be created European External Action Service (EEAS), an EU diplomatic corps of 6,000 people with over 130 delegations around the globe. It is therefore not a small job.

Lady Ashton, in the words of van Rompuy, 'will be our main player in foreign affairs'. And it is this fact that worries many. On what credentials was she chosen? Lady Ashton is a woman, a socialist (in the very broad sense of the term), and hails from a member state with a strong diplomatic tradition. Yet, this is the lowest common denominator. If we move away from what she represents to who she is, we see a startling lack of foreign policy experience.

Internally there is befuddlement as to how serious foreign policy contenders, with caveats and flaws surely, did not manage to beat an individual that seems to meet all interests' demands, bar the demands of the job: foreign affairs and security policy experience.

The reaction of third country missions and representations in Brussels, the US, China and Japan is one of slight confusion. Why drum up all the hubris and announce you will arrive grandly on the world stage only to place the most important job in the EU in the hands of a neophyte? China in particular would have preferred to have seen a 'traffic-stopper' in one of the two positions; as such an individual would have been a natural interlocutor for the highest levels of China's leadership. As it now stands neither van Rompuy nor Ashton are considered to share the same dais as Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. North American and Asian diplomats also ask how the EU will engage the world outside of Europe with individuals so unused to the world beyond the EU's borders.

Lacking vision?

Brussels is a-chatter with Ashton. While she has not uttered 'I can see Russia from my house' Sarah Palin-like statements, neither has she said anything to instil confidence. As mentioned before, her job fuses the two main EU external relations posts, and the new position is much more than a sum of its parts. She now has the inter-governmental mantle of Solana and the deep communitarian pockets of Ferrero Waldner. The previous holders of the two posts combined many years leading their foreign ministries and a term at the helm of NATO. Ashton has one year as EU trade commissioner and several more in domestic political positions.

The tasks of Ashton's first year in office will be to provide guidance on the formation of the EEAS, to steer the European Defence Agency, and provide greater coherence to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and in particular the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). There is the potential for a positive shift in EU-NATO relations in the coming years: the Lisbon Treaty implicitly recognises the role of NATO in European security; and NATO is reviewing its strategic concept at the same time as the EU is seeking to reassess its role in international affairs. Ashton should foster closer consultations with the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen - once a name mentioned for the beefed-up High Representative post before his selection as NATO chief. He has been notably active in his attempts to resolve EU-NATO rifts, centring on the divided Cyprus.

Ashton thus has the most favourable conditions in many years and the necessary resources to positively alter European foreign and security policy. Yet, EU leaders are concerned for several reasons. They are worried about her nationality, questioning her proximity to London and fearful that she will allow British wariness to closer defence cooperation to guide her thinking. There are concerns that as head of the EDA she will uphold British objections to a larger and more long-term budget, rather than seeking to tackle this obstruction.

In short, leaders are unsure of the vision guiding Ashton's actions. And unexpectedly plucked from her trade commissioner post only weeks ago, the greatest fear is that neither does she. At a time when the EU is seeking to reshape its relations with the world, this is hugely problematic.

Nominally, Ashton will be aided in her task by the EU's grand strategy, the European Security Strategy (ESS), but according to some analysts, the ESS tells the EU how it should approach foreign policy concerns - in a preventative, unified and multilateral manner - but does not clarify what these concerns are. Thus one of the many pressing tasks on Ashton's desk should be the drafting of a new ESS for a post-Lisbon EU. The release of a new document has been held up due to the delay in the ratification process for Lisbon. Despite the many conflicting top of the list tasks of the new foreign policy chief the formulation of a new ESS should be carried out sooner rather than later. For the EU, functioning under new rules, with greater global ambitions and a lightweight replacing a diplomatic heavy-hitter a clear strategy is of evident importance.

On 2 December 2009 Ashton appeared in front of an enlarged session of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. Reactions have been mixed and praise muted. Her personable style and impressive communication skills were recognised, but her almost total lack of specifics on foreign policy questions were noted. She frequently mentioned her wish to exert 'quiet diplomacy', possibly a European version of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 'smart diplomacy'. However, for a bloc often criticised for punching below its weight on the diplomatic front, an intention to practice 'quiet diplomacy' was not what the committee wanted to hear.

To face the challenges ahead, the new foreign policy supremo of the EU will have to call upon a deep understanding of and hard-earned experience in foreign and security policy. Unfortunately for 'Global Europe', this experience will not be her own.

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