Since the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force on Dec. 1, 2009, the European Union's foreign policy has taken the first steps toward an institutional restructuring. Lisbon introduced a permanent president of the European Council as well as the post of high representative (HR) for foreign affairs, and established a European foreign service corps known as the European Action Service (EAS).
The new positions were meant to establish more recognizable representatives of the EU in the international arena. But the relatively low profile of former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy and Britain's Catherine Ashton since their election to the posts of president and HR, respectively, suggests that member states are not keen to empower the newly created institutions. The same seems to hold for the ongoing process of conceiving and populating the EAS, with member states lining up key positions for their own national diplomats, while leaving secondary posts to supranational European Commission officials.
According to many observers, including commission officials, the distribution of power will remain at an intergovernmental level in spite of the reforms advanced by Lisbon. So any analysis of the EU's foreign policy will still require examining the member states' interests in the international arena.
Historically, there have been two opposing tendencies within the EU -- Atlanticism and Europeanism. The first, traditionally supported by the U.K., favors continued U.S. engagement in Europe, considers NATO the only necessary European defense institution, and remains wary of the rise of a continental power. The second, expressed most vigorously by the French, favors the development of a common EU foreign policy and stronger cooperation in military affairs so that Europe might become an actor on the global stage.
The recent earthquake in Haiti illustrated both tendencies in action. The French were quick in trying to organize an aid response under the EU banner, initially proposing to send 1,000 paramilitary police officers from the European Gendarmerie. But lack of support from other member states ultimately forced Paris to downgrade its aspirations, and only 300 men were sent. Throughout, London remained skeptical about the need for a European military presence in Haiti at all, since the U.S. had already sent troops to the island.
Later, when Ashton refused to fly to Haiti -- as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had immediately done -- Europeanists argued that her absence undermined the EU's international visibility. Subtle and not-so-subtle criticisms came from high-ranking French officials in particular, including EU Commissioner Michel Barnier and Secretary of State for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche.
The picture suggests that little has changed in European foreign policy: Old rivalries and lack of coordination remain.
However, changes might be underway. The first hint came from British Defense Minister Bob Ainsworth, who recently issued a Defense Green Paper calling for increased cooperation with France across a range of defense issues. Signaling a shift from Britain's traditional approach, the report recognizes that "the EU has demonstrated it can play an important part in promoting our security." Ashton's position at the forefront of EU's foreign policy may provide the U.K. government with the reassurance it needs to advance in this direction. However, support for the EU is likely to fade if a conservative government is elected in the incoming parliamentary elections.
A more radical message came from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who recently stated his support for the long-term goal of creating a European army. Germany's new government has been keen to restore ties with the U.S. after they drifted during the Bush administration. Boosting the EU's foreign policy institutions may serve that purpose, as it would allow a more active partnership in the international arena.
At the same time, some countries in Eastern Europe that used to rely exclusively on NATO regarding defense issues also appear willing to enhance the EU's role in that area. Poland has already stated that EU defense will be a priority during its EU presidency in 2011, while officials of the ruling party hinted that an increase in EU military capabilities would be beneficial for Poland. After the 2008 war in Georgia, Polish officials seemed concerned that NATO may not be a fully reliable partner. As Krzysztof Lisek, a Polish member of the EU parliament, put it, "Obama sent several signs that Europe should be responsible for Europe."
For his part, Van Rompuy seems willing to seize the momentum created by the debates over Haiti to push for the creation of an EU rapid response crisis intervention force, an idea originally drafted by Barnier. Also, Ashton appears to have backed off from her initial reticence, and is now probing the possibility of sending an EU mission to Haiti.
Another factor that may encourage European governments to boost EU foreign policy institutions is the perceived gradual disengagement of the U.S. from the continent. Obama's unexpected decision to not attend a bilateral EU-U.S. heads of state summit in Madrid next month may reinforce such sentiment. Some countries, including the U.K., are beginning to believe that the EU needs to become a more useful partner for the Americans -- which means improving EU foreign policy mechanisms.
However, the long-sought-after objective of a truly common European foreign and defense policy remains distant. The main difficulty continues to be aligning the positions of 27 member states whose interests are often opposed. An added challenge will now be to ensure that those differing interests do not paralyze the EAS and related agencies. Achieving consensus on particular issues under such circumstances is hard enough. Building state-like foreign policy institutions will certainly prove even more difficult.
Editors note: Nicolas Nagle is a freelance journalist based in Brussels. He has worked for a number of Latin American news outlets and for the International Crisis Group.
World Politics Review