A major promise of the Lisbon Treaty was that it would streamline the European Union's foreign policy. Now that it has been in place for more than six months we look at what - if anything - has changed.
The Lisbon treaty went into effect in December 2009
Last week after lots of internal wrangling, the EU finally agreed upon a blueprint for its new diplomatic corps, the so-called EU external action service. The creation of the new institution was stipulated in the Lisbon treaty as one of the main practical objectives for achieving a more coherent EU foreign policy.
"This agreement about the new external service is of course a very interesting step forward because it will bring together a number of instruments that were at the hands of the European commission for the European Council," Álvaro de Vasconcelos, director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, told Deutsche Welle.
But the service in and of itself is not good enough, argue experts. The EU with its complex structural set-up is a unique international actor that compared to traditional nation states lacks clear lines of command-and-control in foreign policy decision making. While the new external action service will provide a structure to manage diplomatic relations, the EU still hasn't developed a framework and concept for the policy the new corps should carry out.
"We need to define a strategic concept for a European Union foreign policy that will bring together member states and institutions", says Vasconcelos. "Now that we have a service, we have a telephone number, even if it is a switchboard. But now we need to have something to say when the phone rings."
Before the external action service can start its work next year, many details such as bugdet, finances and staff still need to be ironed out. While these are all important factors in order to set up a functioning service, even more important is defining what this new diplomatic corps is actually supposed to accomplish.
That mission thing
"I think it is necessary not to just build another institution, but to get a mission statement to learn what it's objectives will be," Stefani Weiss, a European foreign policy expert at the Bertelsmann Foundation, told Deutsche Welle.
The EU's diplomatic corps is supposed to open missions around the world
A clear sense of a unified, cogent mission is not just imperative for the new diplomatic service. It is also needed to develop a common EU foreign policy. However, whether the much hailed Lisbon treaty can really facilitate a joint EU strategy on international relations remains questionable. Perhaps the expectation that this treaty could transform the EU's foreign policy, which traditionally has been dominated by the various interests of various member states, into a single strategic purview may have been too optimistic.
"With the Lisbon treaty the member states haven't given up their prerogatives in the field of foreign and security policy, so still any decision taken in the realm of foreign and security policy has to be taken with unanimity and that makes processes slow," says Weiss. "Decisions can only be taken as compromises and therefore you can't engage in great foreign policy agendas."
For now at least developing and shaping a European foreign policy will remain a slow and incremental process. Still, argues Vasconcelos, things will improve once the EU's diplomatic corps is in place, because then the EU can concentrate on substantive matters.
He hopes that another step toward a more coherent foreign policy could be made at the upcoming European Council meeting in September when the EU's strategic partnerships will be discussed. Currently the EU and its member states have entered into or are negotiating strategic partnerships with a multitude of countries and regions.
"We have seen that these summits between the European Union and these countries are not very effective," says Vasconcelos. "So there will be a real discussion how to give substance to these summits and this will take place in September."
Catherine Ashton can't simply push a reset button on EU foreign policy
Once the EU manages to define its main international partners and what it wants from them, then the EU's new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Lady Catherine Ashton, can work to implement that mandate, says Vasconcelos.
Ashton, whose position also stems from the Lisbon treaty and who has been the EU's High Representative since December 2009, has so far not made any grave mistakes, but also has not achieved a major success during her tenure.
To expect that she could single-handedly and quickly streamline the EU's foreign policy would be to underestimate the complexity of the European institutions and to overestimate the reach of the Lisbon treaty.
That doesn't mean there isn't progress, just don't expect a big bang coming out of Brussels. To put it in an historical context: What would be the post-Lisbon treaty's answer to Henry Kissinger's question whom to call when he wants to talk to Europe?
"Maybe we now have Lady Ashton sitting at the switchboard and she knows how to connect," suggests Weiss.
Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge