Why ousting Ashton won’t get it fixed – the need for a rethink in EU foreign and defense policy

An analysis of the real causes of EU’s underperformance in the southern shore of the mediterranean and proposals to get the EU back on track.

, by Joan Marc Simon

Why ousting Ashton won't get it fixed – the need for a rethink in EU foreign and defense policy
Catherine Ashton Credit © European Union, 2011

The last events in the northern Mediterranean, starting from Tunisia and ending in Libya have helped to define what EU’s foreign policy currently is and, more than that, what it is not.

When it comes to foreign policy the EU was and continues to be a dwarf with 27 legs, each of them trying to move the body in a different direction. With the treaty of Lisbon some might have thought that by giving a single head to this dwarf it would be easier not only to move but also to grow up into a more respected figure in international relations. Well, the dwarf is still, in the best case, a dwarf.

Many are blaming Ashton for the lost opportunity to make the EU shine in international politics. Indeed, in the Libya case everything was aligned for the EU to score its first points as international player with the use of its new tools of foreign policy. Yet, the lack of consensus in Europe forced individual member states to look for support for action elsewhere. Surprisingly, the old UN Security Council, with all its cons and ifs, and once the US had agreed to move forward, it proved to be a very useful body to trigger action from the international community.

It is not the intention of this paper to analyse the Libyan war or the role of UN Security Council but rather draw some conclusions on the performance of the EU foreign policy instruments.

Firstly, it is undeniable that the figure of High Representative underperformed throughout the crisis –and arguably also before-. Fifteen months after having taken on this position, Baroness Ashton has not yet taken the measure of her post. Sadly, the best it can be said about the baroness is that she has not been obstructive to other initiatives undertaken by member states. As a facilitator of foreign policy and as EU’s spokesperson for foreign affairs she has been clearly missing. Academic and online community give many convincing reasons to justify her ousting from the position. Yet, finding a replacement for her will not be easy. Especially in view of current diverging views regarding the shape and purpose of European foreign policy; indeed, some member states might find Ashton’s low profile more than convenient to perpetuate the illusion of a common European foreign and defence policy. The weaker and lower profile the high representative has, the more power stays in the hands of some –big- member states, regardless of what treaties say. One can then enquire whether a country like Germany or France would lose rather than gain, were Ashton to be sacked.

This opens the door for the further analysis on the question of European foreign policy: is Ashton the real problem or is she only a scapegoat?

The real question that we should pose ourselves, and which the EU has been trying to answer since decades, is whether it is in the interest of the Europeans to have a common European foreign and defence policy. Neither the Constitutional treaty nor the Lisbon treaty managed to address this fundamental problem. In view of current developments one could argue that by creating a “foreign minister” without an European army and without a foreign policy the Lisbon treaty only made things worse.

Under the current treaties, same as before, decisions on foreign affairs and defence are to be taken by unanimity (art 42). This decision-making procedure means that currently a consistent common foreign and defence policy is just not possible. Does this mean that the job of the High Representative is an impossible task? Most probably... under Nice the figure of the High Representative had to keep a low profile; Solana was representing the council and the expectations on him were clear. With Lisbon the High Representative has to represent the Council (the interest of the member states) and the Commission (the common interest) and is required to be one of the prominent faces of the EU. Yet the mandate is always unclear and the big member states always do what is in their hands to spoil the party so that it is clear to everyone that foreign policy remains a national competence.

The problem, and going back to the question of what is in the interest of the Europeans, is that the current situation is unsustainable in the long run. Pretending to have a European foreign minister but refusing to give it the relevance and the means plays against the credibility of the European project. Having Ashton, or whoever else, being constantly contradicted and overrun by the national ministries undermines the EU as a whole, inside and outside the Union. Inside the EU, the citizens realise that with the Lisbon treaty everything changed so that everything could stay the same; the same old story all over again about the EU having a single voice in the world but in the end the big member states do as they wish. Outside the EU, the US still has no one to call in Europe in times of crisis and ends up dealing with two or three European capitals whilst the rest of the world continues to assist to the decline of the old continent... We just can’t afford to continue in the current situation.

If we are to continue along this path and in order to avoid further damage to the image of the Union I would argue that the EU should reconsider the current rhetoric and study going back to the former situation of a High Representative representing the Council and a European Commissioner for External Relations representing the common interest. This situation would be self-defeating but it would minimise the danger of deception.

However, in my opinion the preferable option is not to retreat but to advance with an European project that includes a common foreign and defence policy. In order to do so it is necessary to identify the problems that stay in the way and address them strategically.

The problem for European foreign and defence policy is lack of political will, but also a lack of appropriate tools and rules. In view of the current experiences it is clear that the political will is probably what will come last for it is unthinkable that most member states will give away sovereignty in the field of foreign affairs and –especially- defence unless they are able to cover their backs.

The challenge for the future of the EU foreign and defence policy is how to create a set of tools and rules that can give enough confidence to member states so that they can put together the political will to make a step forward in the direction of communitarianism. European Federalists have traditionally identified the unanimity principle as the Gordian knot of European integration; i.e. if the Council would be able to decide by qualified majority voting or even super qualified majorities it would be possible for the EU to have a common foreign and defence policy. Although this is true in theory, it is difficult to imagine how it would happen in practice because no big member state could afford to be outnumbered in a decision that implies going to war. Here we collide not only with the problem of political will but also with the principles of national sovereignty.

At the end of the day and to simplify the matter, the question would be as simple as who would be responsible for sending the condolence letter to the family of a fallen soldier of a member state who voted against the military intervention but still had to pay for his deployment. The mother could rightly ask the national government why her son had to die in a war that the same democratically elected government opposed. Who in the EU would be in the position of sending these condolence letters to soldiers from the national armies?

It all boils down to the fact that there cannot be a European defence policy without an European army, financed with the own resources of the Union and accountable to the EU institutions. In case of war these soldiers would be fighting for the EU and not for any member state and may they fall, the EU would have the right to make the appropriate honours. Under these circumstances it would be possible to remove the unanimity principle from the Council meetings. Then, this core European army, financed and managed by the EU, could be complemented with the national forces from those states that voted in favour of the military intervention whilst those who abstained or voted against can stay away but without stopping the EU from taking on the role that the majority of Europeans want it to have.

Hence, the right strategic decision on the tools can manage to unblock the institutional problems and generate the political will necessary to make the EU shine in situations such as the revolts in the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

In a situation like this even Baroness Ashton would be able to deliver as High Representative, for it would allow a European position on the issue to unfold and evolve, giving a lot more protagonism to the EU which would result in a lot more support and credibility to the European project. Also, one can argue that this solution would also be fairer to the middle and small EU member states which in the current situation are nothing else than observers in a show run by old declining super-powers with leaders fighting for any protagonism that can give them votes.

All in all, the economic crisis and now the political crisis in the southern shore of the Mediterranean highlight the need for more Europe. Time has proven that in lack of European Economic Government, Germany will be the European Government and that in lack of European common foreign policy, France, UK and Germany will decide on foreign policy. The loser will be the small and medium member states, the European citizens and the European project as a whole.

Foreign and defence policy has been the field in which the EU has advanced the less, yet together with the development of a European budget and a European fiscal policy they are the main components of the reforms that the EU will have to face in the next years. If Europe is to recover the constructive path that it abandoned after the adoption of the euro it needs to address these issues urgently. Ousting Ashton from her position is like fighting the economic crisis with technical changes to the Growth and Stability Pact; they are short term measures that don’t deal with the real nature of the problem.

Maybe rediscovering the draft treaty establishing the European Defence Community could help close the chapter that Europe has left open for too long. It’s been 65 years of European decline in world politics, how much more can we afford to fall?

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