EU Hydra: Which Head to Talk To?

EU Farnesina (Rome) meeting 7-2010

Since the ratification of the EU Lisbon Treaty, a new joke has been circulating in Brussels: in response to Henry Kissinger’s inquiry as to who to call to speak to ‘Europe,’ that number finally exists. It’s 1-800-1-EUROPE, and when you call, the automated voice helpfully tells you (in all 23 official EU languages, no doubt), “To speak to the European Council President, press 1; for the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, press 2; for the current rotating head of the Council of Ministers, press 3; to reach the European Commission President, press 4; for the President of the European Parliament, press 5…”

The joke clearly speaks to the sad reality that, though it was heavily advertised as the answer to raising the European Union’s profile on the international stage, in reality the Lisbon Treaty has done nothing to simplify the EU’s complex institutional structure or increase its external coherence.  In other words, when a global crisis strikes, or an international problem needs a multilateral solution, global powers like the United States still do not know who in the EU to turn to when seeking a resolute partner.

Specifically, the Lisbon Treaty created the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – currently held by Lady Catherine Ashton – whose role is to coordinate the foreign policies of the 27 Member States and present a coherent EU policy on important global issues.  At the same time, however, Herman Van Rompuy – in his capacity as the President of the European Council – is also tasked with representing the European Union on the international stage.  Despite having been chosen by the EU heads of state specifically for being a relative unknown, Van Rompuy has nonetheless gradually been making a name for himself on the international stage. 

Van Rompuy’s rise in stature has most clearly been at the expense of the European Commission President and the rotating President of the Council of Ministers – both of which had historically also served as the ‘face of the EU’ in global forums.  The rather vague language of the Lisbon Treaty, unfortunately, fails to clearly delineate the institutional competencies of these posts – especially the respective roles of the Commission and European Council presidents.  To complicate matters further, the Treaty also augmented the powers of the European Parliament (EP), which has bolstered its head, Jerzy Buzek, to increase the EP’s and his own visibility in response to various international issues and crises.

Up until now, the rotating Presidency has been another wildcard for third countries looking to engage the European Union.  Member States have taken turns chairing all ministerial summits and Council meetings for six month terms since the 1950s.  They were encouraged to set their own agendas for their presidencies, which often spilled into the realm of foreign relations.  Some countries took to the position more fervently than others, but during their tenures, most tried to concentrate the EU’s Collective Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) on areas and issues closest to their hearts.

Thus, the 2008 Slovenian presidency focused on the Balkans, then the French championed Northern Africa and the Mediterranean Union, Sweden in 2009 pushed global and regional crisis management, and most recently Spain attempted to build stronger EU ties with Latin America.  These brusque and periodic changes in course – and frequent lack of follow-through between ensuing rotating presidencies – tended to confound third countries attempting to interact with the EU.  Meanwhile, sudden international crises such as the 2006 War in Lebanon, the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, and the 2009 Russia-Ukraine gas conflict confused European foreign policy further.

On July 1, Belgium took over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers.  In line with Lisbon Treaty prescriptions, the Belgian government has promised to leave all EU-level foreign policy matters to Lady Ashton and Von Rompuy.  Of course, it made it much easier that a Belgian already holds a top EU position responsible, in part, for foreign affairs.  Belgium’s decision to forgo foreign relations initiatives promises to streamline who in the EU other countries should expect to talk to.  It is probably a good thing since Spain, which preceded Belgium in the first half of 2010, showed the limits of the rotating presidency’s foreign policy capacity in post-Lisbon Europe.

Indeed, Spain’s foreign policy accomplishments were scant to nonexistent.  Madrid’s much ballyhooed EU-Latin American and Caribbean summit failed to attract any wider EU interest, the Mediterranean Union summit was postponed and then abandoned due to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and the planned EU-US Summit had to be canceled when President Barack Obama – exasperated with the byzantine European structures and protocol – declined to attend.

Belgium’s decision to leave external relations to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the up-and-coming EU diplomatic corps – the European External Action Service (EEAS) – may seem like a chance for achieving clarity in Europe’s foreign policy.  There is probably a strong temptation in Washington to embrace Lady Ashton (and maybe Von Rumpoy) as the only diplomatic channels for engaging the EU.  However, the United States cannot entirely forsake the rotating Presidencies of the Council of Ministers.

Illustratively, 2011 is set to be the year of Central Eastern Europe (CEE) on the continent.  Hungary and Poland take turns as rotating presidencies of the Council.  Moreover, Lithuania will be the OSCE Chairman-in-Office and is already coordinating with Poland to present a coherent EU-OSCE agenda in 2011.  This presents a strong opportunity for the US to work together with these CEE allies, which closely share Washington’s policy toward Europe’s East and Eurasia, European energy security, European enlargement, etc.

In fact, according to EU regulatory documents, the High Representative and her EEAS do not enjoy a monopoly on foreign relations or on chairing Council committees on external policy.  Rather, the rotating presidency will head all Foreign Affairs Council sessions that deal with ‘trade’ as well as the COREPER committees.  For US diplomats seeking to engage the EU bureaucracy, this may prove to be a hidden treasure.  It goes without saying that the EU-US trade relationship is enormously important, and for this reason Washington may have to pay attention to which EU Member State is president every six months.  Just as significantly, however, the COREPER committees set the agenda for ministerial-level meetings in the Council.  Thus, such an ability to engage Brussel’s internal legislative process should not be ignored.  Washington has a powerful opportunity to build a fruitful working relationship with the EU in 2011, but preparations and coordination of policy strategies among the US, Hungary, and Poland-Lithuania must begin now.

It has been said that the European Union is like a multi-headed hydra, and the Lisbon Treaty probably added on a few more heads to the beast.  Yet, this fact need not discourage the US government as it seeks a partner in Europe.  The key is to understand which head to talk to for which problem.  In this challenging world the US finds itself in, throwing its hands up in desperation and ignoring the EU entirely will not do anyone any good.

Matthew Czekaj is a research associate with the Atlantic Council’s International Security program. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Image: EU%20Farnesina%20meeting.jpg