EEAS – a single European voice in multilateral diplomacy?

Catherine Ashton and the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, source: Europa Newswire

Claims to introduce a single European voice on international scene already became a mantra of political, academic and journalistic circles. They fuelled reforms brought by the Lisbon Treaty and continue to hold ground in the wake of its arduous implementation. Has it been successful in the field of multilateral diplomacy? What has been done so far and what are the prospects for the future?

The emergence of modern diplomacy dates back to the 19th century. Ever since, it concentrates more and more on multilateral forums: international organisations, cyclic conferences and ad-hoc groupings (such as G-20) became world crisis-management centres and marketplaces for global problems solutions. In the multilateral diplomatic world two features count the most – relative weight and coalition capacity. The EU, represented in these forums by many member states taking on occasion divergent positions, too often lacks both aforementioned elements. It is therefore crucial for the EU, in order to remain relevant, to speak with one voice, i.e. to convey a single message. However, as recently observed by Pascal Lamy, it is even more important to speak with one mouth, since no interlocutor is able to listen to 27 identical messages. Thus, the challenge for the EEAS is to ensure both coordination of the national positions and their single representation.

 Before the Lisbon Treaty came into force both coordination and representation in multilateral context were divided between the Commission and the Council, depending on a subject matter, and executed in the field either by Delegations of the European Commission or rotating Council Presidency »s missions. However, in case an international body did not allow for a participation of non-state actors, the Presidency would assume representation even if a subject matter belonged to the Commission. With the Treaty of Lisbon the division of competences has not been eradicated, but the EEAS has been vested with a duty to support Lady Ashton in both of her roles – as a Vice-President of the Commission and as a Chair of the Foreign Affairs Council. Thus, newly renamed European Union Delegations « shall represent the Union at international organisations » (Art. 221.1 Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union), and take over coordination tasks, ensuring consistent presence of the EU on the international scene, regardless of the internal division of powers.

As much as everyone hoped for smooth transition and triumphant beginning of a new era in the EU external relations, the reality proved to be rather bittersweet. First hurdle, disappointingly, is due to the attitude of Member States themselves. Not ready to acknowledge diminishing role of the rotating Presidency, not fond of ever growing competences of the EU institutions and above all concerned about losing influence in the sphere of their vital interests, member states argue that in subject matters that remain within the scope of their national competence, or are shared with the EU, they might still chose to be represented by the Presidency. On such grounds, it was the Flemish Minister for the Environment Joke Schauvlieghe who, not so long ago, represented the EU at the focal climate change negotiations (COP-16 in Cancún). The same arguments have been presented in attempts of some states to save coordination tasks in selected policy fields for the Presidency »s missions.

The second hurdle for establishing a unique EU representation comes from outside, as maintaining diplomatic relations requires recognition from the potential partners. Unlike bilateral diplomacy, many international organisations remain state-centred, leaving the EU a role of a passive observer. The saga of passing a resolution allowing for an upgraded observer status in the United Nations » General Assembly serves as an instructive example. The first draft, recognising changes brought by the Treaty of Lisbon by allowing almost full participation rights for the EU has been taken off the agenda by majority vote in September 2010. Only the second draft, presented in May 2011, gained ground and has been passed with a landslide support. On the one hand, it shows that the EU has to do more to convince its partners that it is worth to be talked to. Unfortunately, the EEAS did not handle the first draft properly and it has been heavily criticized for its limited capacity in multilateral diplomacy. On the other hand, the success of the second draft proves that Lisbon reforms provide an added value and the EU can be a recognised player, represented by its permanent agents. However, for many other international bodies that remain reserved for states only, the EU still needs to rely on representation ensured by the Council Presidency.

Although such victories as the one eventually secured in the General Assembly of the United Nations might be comforting, in the long run some more radical changes will be necessary. As a recent study of established Brussels-based think tanks such as CEPS, EPC, Egmont and CGGS KULeuven suggests, Europe should reconsider its participation in international organisations. Whenever internal division of competences allows, the member states should give up their seats to the Union. Only then the EU would be able to play according to its weight and other countries could not complain on Europeans » overrepresentation. One can only imagine how great challenge would it pose to the EEAS becoming a genuine diplomatic service for Europe. However, it is all in hands of the member states – again.


Grzegorz Grobicki




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