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Foreign failure

April 29, 2009

Many analysts and EU politicians say the bloc's foreign policy is in need of a makeover. Competing voices and a confusing institutional structure have weakened EU efforts on the world stage.

The foreign ministers from France and the UK in Sri Lanka
The foreign ministers from France and the UK did not achieve their goal in Sri LankaImage: AP

The foreign ministers of Britain and France announced on Wednesday that they had failed in their attempt to broker an end to hostilities in Sri Lanka.

"We tried very hard, we insisted, and we insisted, but it is up to our friends to allow it or not," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters in Colombo.

refugees around a supply truck
The EU had hoped to ease the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka's northImage: AP

He and Britain's David Miliband had gone to the island off the southern coast of India to persuade the government to allow humanitarian access to the civilians trapped between Sri Lankan forces and Tamil rebels.

But the hawkish government in Colombo wasn't listening, and even denied a visa to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt who had intended to come along. "The Swedish minister also wanted to jump on that bandwagon and we said no," a Sri Lankan official told the AFP news agency.

And thus, the EU can chalk up another foreign policy effort that has ended in failure.

While this latest setback is not representative of everything which bedevils EU foreign policy, it does reflect some of the problems Brussels faces as it tries to position itself on the world stage: the lack of a single foreign-policy point person, the appearance of an inconsistent approach to problems or crises, and an apparent lack of diplomatic clout in some parts of the world.

Too many cooks?

The list of alleged shortcomings in EU foreign policy is a long one. Probably the most famous complaint was made by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who in the 1970's quipped: "When I want to call Europe, I cannot find a phone number."

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana has some difficult institutional hurdles to deal withImage: AP

Little has changed in the following decades and high-ranking officials are still wondering who they should talk to in Brussels when they want to go to the top.

According to Clara O'Donnell, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London, the EU's history and structure make this conundrum somewhat understandable. The EU has 27 different nations and 27 different foreign ministers who are often not on the same page. Unanimity is a goal that under those conditions can be hard to reach.

"In spite of the fact that member states might commit to wanting to work through the EU in the foreign policy area, they still want to send their own delegation, express their own opinions," said O'Donnell. "There are just too many people trying to express this message."

That was illustrated recently in full color during the conflict in Gaza. At one point, there were five different EU officials involved in talks with Israel, rather than just one.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the fighting in Gaza in JanuaryImage: AP

French President Nicolas Sarkozy bypassed the EU with his own unilateral effort to resolve the crisis. And to top it off, while the crisis began under France's six-month rotating presidency, it continued under the Czech presidency - a country with fewer resources and fewer well-known politicians.

"Policy people will tell you that, in India or China, the feeling is,if you want us to listen to the EU, please send us someone that we know," said O'Donnell. "It is a problem that EU officials are not considered heavyweight politicians abroad. This affects the weight they can have when trying to undertake dialog, negotiations, etc."

Lisbon to the rescue?

Many analysts and those within the EU are pinning their hopes for reshaping EU foreign policy on the Lisbon Treaty. It's a set of streamlining rules that could be ratified later this year, although it took a heavy knock in 2008 when Irish voters rejected it.

If passed the second time around, the treaty would combine the jobs of the foreign affairs chief and the external affairs commissioner, creating the "double-hatted" post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and European Vice-President.

EU Commission President Barroso delivering a speech on the Lisbon Treaty in 2007
EU Commission President Barroso delivering a speech on the Lisbon Treaty in 2007Image: Picture-Alliance /dpa

Right now the European Council has the say on foreign policy, although the European Commission controls all the necessary resources. Eliminating that divide could greatly increase efficiency and give the EU more clout on the world stage.

Another change would be to the EU presidency. After Lisbon, the presidency would run two-and-a-half years instead of six months as under the current system, which would provide more continuity.

But some are still skeptical whether the Lisbon Treaty really will solve all of the EU's foreign policy headaches. According to Sara Hageman of the European Policy Centre, the text of the Lisbon Treaty is very broad, and its success or failure depends on how the guidelines are put into practice.

"It is only once we see who takes up the (new) positions and how they interpret the text that the effect will be known."

Change or fade away

party in Poland upon joining the EU
EU enlargement has been one of the bloc's foreign policy success storiesImage: dpa

EU foreign policy defenders point to some success, despite institutional structures that work against it. EU enlargement, a foreign policy issue, has gone smoothly for the most part. Many observers gave the EU good marks for its response to last year's crisis in Georgia.

Research fellow O'Donnell says EU officials are fully aware of the shortcomings that exist and are working to move to a better system. According to her, leaders in Brussels realize this is imperative if they want the bloc to stay relevant in a changing, multipolar world where European influence is declining relative to emerging countries like China or India.

"They are realizing if they want their voice to be heard on the global stage, there's a bigger chance of this happening if they work together," she said.

Author: Kyle James

Editor: Susan Houlton

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