Diplomacy: Paris and London torpedo EU foreign policy
31 March 2011
The initiative taken by France and the United Kingdom — two countries which occupy key posts in the European External Action Service — has fragmented the emerging structure of European diplomacy to the point where some commentators have remarked that the EU’s foreign policy should be directly entrusted to Paris and London.
In the wake of the euro crisis and in the context of the ongoing war in Libya, what has become of the European Union? Whereas developments in the economic sphere have been largely positive, virtually nothing has happened in the field of foreign policy. Jean Monnet remarked that crises were the driving force in the construction of Europe – an observation that has in part been confirmed by the new pact for the euro, which Europe has finally adopted in response to the debt crisis.
However, the same cannot be said for European intervention in Libya, which for the moment has done nothing to advance the agenda for a common foreign policy. On the contrary, it has demonstrated that the organisation outlined by the Lisbon Treaty – a kind of foreign ministry with an attached diplomatic service – is completely pointless or simply does not work. Some have argued that Catherine Ashton, who has increasingly been the target of all kinds of criticism, is to blame for this situation. However, the reality is that national governments deliberately chose Mrs Ashton for a reason: they specifically wanted the High Representative for Foreign Affairs to be a "non-entity" – a stipulation that Baroness Ashton has fulfilled to the letter.
So why is it so difficult to establish a common foreign policy that actually works? Because member states have divergent geopolitical interests – or at least they think they do. Because politicians use international relations as a medium for their own personal PR, and because there is no diplomatic equivalent of economic phenomena like the single currency or the common institutions linked to the single market.
That is not to say that there is no conflict between national economic interests, but that European initiatives benefit from the conviction that the advantages of belonging to an integrated economic zone outweigh the disadvantages, which for the moment continues to hold sway. This is not the case in the field of foreign policy, and the war in Libya is a case in point. France, which stumbled in its handling of events in Tunisia, is now eager to establish a new basis for its influence in the Mediterranean region – a position not shared by Germany, whose sphere of political influence is mainly focused on Eastern and Central Europe and whose trading interests are mainly in India and China. As a result, Berlin views the war as a pointless and costly venture.
The failure to see eye-to-eye on the issue has resulted in a paradox: for the first time ever, two European countries (France and the United Kingdom) have led the way in taking the initiative in an international crisis, but at the same time, Europe’s common foreign and security policy has been completely blown apart.
Naturally, Paris and London do not see it that way: they believe they are acting "on behalf" of Europe, because they are the two European countries with the fire power to do so. However, the perception in other European countries is that France and the UK have "taken over" from Europe, and that amounts to quite a difference – especially in the context of last November’s Franco-British agreement on military cooperation, which has not advanced the agenda for European defence. France and the UK account for close to 50% of European military spending and they are the only EU member states to have nuclear weapons and permanent seats on the UN Security Council, but they have no intention of allowing their bilateral cooperation to be watered down by a European "institution" that would not be under their control, and the European Defence Agency, which recently appointed a French woman as its chief executive, has never really taken off. Finally, the conflict in Libya has also revealed the limitations of Europe’s existing military capacity: to intervene France and Britain have been obliged to use US-made Tomahawk missiles, and to launch missions from Italian airbases.
Notwithstanding questions about their commitment to European policies in foreign affairs and defence, France and the United Kingdom have succeeded in monopolising most of the key jobs in the European External Action Service (EEAS), which is increasingly aligned with positions adopted in London and Paris. In this context, if we want a European foreign policy that works, we might as well follow the advice voiced by the director of the Centre for European Reform think tank in London, Charles Grant, who recommends that it should be subcontracted to Paris and London, in accordance with the principle of "decentralisation" as outlined in the Lisbon Treaty.
When ideas like this begin to circulate, there is every reason for concern. There are number of precedents – notably Suez, Algeria and Ben Ali – that are there to remind us of this fact.