The European Union is just months away from launching a new unified diplomatic service. But any hopes that the new structure will bring greater focus and effectiveness to the bloc's foreign policy are probably premature, analysts say.
The European External Action Service (EEAS), whose creation was a key provision of last year's Lisbon Treaty, is expected to be fully operational on January 1. It eventually will be staffed with thousands of diplomats in Brussels and in EU missions around the world.
But while the new diplomatic corps may change the way the EU executes its foreign policy, it will not change the way the bloc's foreign policy is formulated. Foreign affairs within the bloc, observers say, will remain very much the prerogative of member states' national governments.
"For the EU to be able to be a very effective actor abroad, it needs all of its member states to agree on the issue at stake -- be it what to do in Georgia or what to do with Russia," Clara O'Donnell, an analyst with the London-based Center for European Reform, explains. "And, secondly, it needs the member states to be willing to let the EU to speak on their behalf. Because what often happens is that the large member states quite like to maintain their bilateral channels to key players and so, often, while they're obviously allowing the EU to go and speak on their behalf, they also do it themselves and this [dilutes] the EU message and sometimes even contradicts it."
The Real Problem
Nevertheless, Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign policy and EEAS chief, insists that the new diplomatic corps will give the bloc's foreign policy badly needed muscle and gravitas.
In a keynote speech to the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee in March, Ashton spoke of "synergies" created by the EEAS that would allow the EU "punch its weight on the world stage." The EEAS, she said, would enable the bloc to fulfill the "original rationale of the Lisbon Treaty -- to build a stronger and more effective EU foreign policy" by promoting "joined-up action."
Ashton, however, did not address the perennial problem of divisions among EU member states when it comes to relations with key international players, such as Russia, or divergent stances on seminal issues, like the future of Kosovo.
Chris Patten, the EU's former external relations commissioner, says the bloc's inability to "sing from the same songbook" is a major contributor to the bloc's perceived inability to live up to its combined economic might.
The creation of the EEAS, analysts say, will do little to change the EU's established foreign policy procedures.
Janis A Emmanouilidis, a senior policy analyst with the European Policy Centre in Brussels, notes that the member states will not be giving away any of their exclusive sovereignty over foreign policy decisions.
"Elements which in the past were largely conducted by the European Commission will be brought closer to elements which in the past were conducted by the member states," Emmanuelidis says. "So things are going to be brought closer together, but this does not mean things are going to be communitarized," or moved from member state to EU competence.
This means, among other things, that when Stefan Fuele, the EU enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, says the EEAS will allow the EU to get more closely involved in issues like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, he is not holding out the prospect that the bloc will assume a direct mediating role.
The Lure Of Power
Ashton's mandate does not go beyond representing the consensus view of the 27 member states -- with each holding the power of veto over any foreign policy decision. The EEAS will take its orders from the member states and work to give substance to the same statements and declarations issued by EU foreign ministers and summits since the inception of the bloc's common foreign and security policy in 1999.
Member states, keen to extend and entrench their influence within the EU, are already jockeying to staff -- and thus control -- the EEAS.
EU officials say of a high-intensity battle is going on behind the scenes for the most important appointments within the EEAS both in Brussels and abroad. France, Germany, and Poland are likely to provide Ashton's deputies, diplomats say.
It would be "stupid to assume member states won't use their appointments to push their own views," observed one Brussels insider.
The struggle between the member states intersects with another complex turf war in which various institutional interests are vying for control of EU foreign policy.
The EU's Council, which represents the member states, must reach an accommodation with the European Commission, which has a multibillion-euro budget for aid programs in regions from Eastern Europe to Africa.
Another player is the European Parliament, whose foreign policy-related pronouncements are nonbinding but which under the Lisbon Treaty has ultimate oversight authority over EEAS financing and staffing decisions.
Due to these elaborate inter-institutional fault lines, the EEAS could in fact end up complicating the existing structures instead of simplifying them.
Pressure by mostly smaller member states, concerned about their waning influence, is likely to force Ashton to maintain most, if not all, of the 12 EU special representatives for the world's trouble spots -- who are appointed by the member states.
On the other hand, the semi-executive European Commission will retain its commissioners for enlargement, neighborhood policy, and development. Much of these commissioners' staffs will be transferred to the EEAS. But the commissioners themselves will remain outside the EEAS and will retain ultimate responsibility for policy implementation and budget disbursement within their fields.
The growing dominance of larger member states has led to dark murmurings of outside influence on EU decisions.
Suggestions have been made that some of the EU special envoys Ashton wants to remove -- among them the bloc's representatives in the South Caucasus and the Middle East -- could have become thorns in the side for "third countries" like Russia.
The assumption -- unproven -- is that these "third countries" may enjoy privileged access to larger EU capitals that put their bilateral relationships above the EU's common interest.
It is unlikely that the EEAS will prove to be the answer to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's celebrated question about whom he is supposed to call when he wants to speak to "Europe."
A far more probable scenario is sketched in a joke -- said to be told by Ashton herself on occasion -- according to which the single EU telephone number reaches an answering machine that instructs the caller to "press '1' for the French position, '2' for the German position, '3' for the British position."