EU Foreign Policy: Ashton Strikes Back

If you’ve been following the saga of the EU’s foreign policy wars, you know that: 1) EU “foreign minister” Catherine Ashton has taken some heavy fire for what critics consider an underwhelming start to leading the union’s common foreign policy in the post-Lisbon era; and, 2) there’s been a barroom brawl going on behind the scenes for influence in the powers and staffing of the future European diplomatic corps, known as the EAS.

So with regard to the first point, it’s interesting to read this EU Observer account of Ashton’s visibly more-assured appearance before the European Parliament to give her vision of EU foreign policy. Particularly noteworthy was her openness to examining the question of a permanent headquarters for EU defense operations. This apparent shift in her stance comes in the aftermath of a meeting with French Defense Minister Hervé Morin to discuss the subject, and in the context of a long-running historical standoff on the issue between the French (stubbornly for) and the British (adamantly against) that at times resembles a religious war. Ashton’s willingness to play evenhandedly here suggests that she might adopt a more independent position vis à vis the British foreign office than critics have suggested. Meanwhile, her pointed protest to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding U.S. sanctions on European companies doing business with Iran suggests that she is far from the pushover that critics have portrayed.

As for the knives coming out in Brussels, the turf war has to date pitted the supranational European Commission against the intergovernmental European Council, with the European Parliament siding with the former due to its greater oversight role over it. But now it appears that there are the makings of an internal struggle within the Euoprean Council, with the so-called Visegrad states — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — demanding more posts for their national diplomats in the EAS as well. Collectively, they have the same voting weight as France and Germany combined, and a host of other “second-tier” EU member states are rallying to their position.

For American observers who have difficulty making sense of all of this, imagine the U.S. where: 1) the federal prerogative (EU Commission) over state law was severely curtailed, limited mainly to issues affecting interstate commerce and external trade policy; 2) the president (European Commission head) took his marching orders from a council of state governors (European Council, now permanently presided by the so-called “EU president”), with particular policy areas overseen by councils of state secretaries; and, 3) Congress (European Parliament) had oversight over the president, but less so over the council of governors.

Now throw in the fact that: 1) the European Commission already has delegations throughout the world to conduct the policy initiatives for which it has prerogative (trade and aid); 2) the national governments, of course, maintain their embassies; and, 3) the EAS is institutionally mandated to assume some, but not all, of the responsibilities of both, and it’s not terribly clear which ones they are. Now you’ve got an idea of the kind of institutional bind in which Ashton and the EU find themselves.

All of this will be resolved, although perhaps not as quickly (April) as had been hoped. What’s at stake is which precedents are set. Even those can shift over time, but they will determine the default setting for the institutional balance of power in the EAS. And if one thing is certain, in the EU, changing the default setting is not an easy task.