Let's end our pygmy politics so we can have a proper EU foreign policy

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Prematurely or not, speculation is becoming rife about the likely successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission. That’s important, but arguably no more important than the identity of the EU’s next foreign policy chief.
The European Union doesn’t really have a foreign policy, and it needs somebody who will create one. Correction; it has many foreign policies, but they are un-connected and ill-defined.
Europe’s inability to “speak with one voice” is ancient history. It’s why the EU created its own diplomatic arm – the European External Action Service – almost a decade ago. Its early years were marred by teething troubles and bureaucratic turf wars when Commission officials tried to strangle it at birth.
The EEAS has now firmly established itself on the international scene, yet still the EU lacks a recognisable foreign policy. Federica Mogherini, the present High Representative for foreign and security policy, could more accurately be described as the ‘Co-ordinator’ of EU member states’ competing foreign policies.

Europe’s pygmy politics are a high barrier to progress

“Untrue and unfair,” would cry the Eurocrats, pointing as they do to the huge body of EU policies that have done much to shape global economic governance. And no one would deny that in terms of norms and standards, climate change diplomacy and worldwide trading conditions, the EU’s voice has been hugely influential. But that’s not foreign policy that tells the world where Europe stands.
Foreign policy should be taken to mean defining clear-cut positions on the conflicts within the Arab world and the Middle East; on Africa and rising migration from Africa; and on Russia and its unsettling assertiveness. Then there’s the geopolitical future of China and more immediately how to respond to Trump’s “America First”. All of these are vitally important questions that European countries often disagree on, but on which they refuse to allow the EU to broker a common position.
This is why the identity of the next EU “foreign minister” is so vital. The scale of the problem doesn’t belie the importance of finding a solution.

Europe cannot continue to be adrift on the perilous waters of a world in turmoil without agreeing its stance on how to handle the most dangerous threats. Federica Mogherini’s successor must be of at least the same stature as whoever follows Juncker, and must be willing and able to knock heads together in EU capitals.
The perpetual snag is Europe’s pygmy politics. Premiers and presidents across the EU are wary of heavyweights going to Brussels. The larger member states have never wanted to see a high-profile figure from a country of similar size take the helm at the commission, or latterly the EEAS. That’s why Luxembourg has punched so ludicrously far above its weight as the birthplace of so many commission presidents.
The EU’s diplomatic arm was launched by Javier Solana, formerly NATO’s secretary-general and before that a highly-regarded Spanish foreign minister. Without his clout, and some considerable cunning, it would probably have been stillborn. His successors, Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini, wouldn’t claim the same stature, but have ably nursed the EEAS’s development into a credible EU institution.

Does a candidate necessarily need the endorsement of his or her government?

But now the moment has come for a political heavyweight. The next High Representative must have the authority and the courage to challenge EU governments’ jealous independence on the main international policy issues of our time, especially those touching on security and defence.
The Brussels game of ‘spot the next commission chief’ is a lottery of names and political affiliations. The three frontrunners in the Juncker succession stakes – Michel Barnier, Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans – are all handicapped by waning electoral support for their own party.
What this tells us is that EU governments must agree on a much more intelligent and transparent method of finding and selecting candidates. Does a candidate necessarily need the endorsement of his or her government?

The list of potential EU heavy-hitters would be far longer if governments’ ability to veto their domestic political rivals were removed. Europe’s pygmy politics are a high barrier to progress

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