Policy Paper

The European External Action Service – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

April 20, 2010
Franziska Brantner
By Franziska Brantner
Member of the European Parliament, Alliance 90/The Greens

Click here for the German version
The Treaty of Lisbon represents another attempt in the history of EU integration to tap the potential of the EU in external relations as well as in other fields.  However, it stops short of taking the ultimate step: The member states have not consented to a communitization of foreign and security policy.  Instead, a complicated new structure was adopted which leaves much to be desired and creates new areas for friction.

Catherine Ashton To Wear Two Hats

The Treaty places a constitutional dual function at the top of foreign policy.  As High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR), the incumbent serves the EU member states and, as Vice President (VP), is simultaneously a member of the Commission.  In the role of Vice President, the incumbent draws on Community method; as High Representative, he carries out decisions negotiated among the member states at the intergovernmental level.  This construct is called “double hat“ or HR/VP – and Catherine Ashton is the first to wear both hats.

The HR/VP will furthermore be supported by a yet-to-be-created European External Action Service (EEAS).  The Treaty remains vague in respect to the structure of this service, merely stating that it “shall comprise officials from relevant departments of the General Secretariat of the Council and of the Commission as well as staff seconded from national diplomatic services of the Member States” (Title V, Article 27).  Its functions are therefore derived from those delegated to the HR/VP, whose mandate is outlined as follows (Title V, Article 9):  “The High Representative shall conduct the Union’s common foreign and security policy.  He shall contribute by his proposals to the development of that policy, which he shall carry out as mandated by the Council.  The same shall apply to the common security and defense policy.  The High Representative shall preside over the Foreign Affairs Council.

The High Representative shall be one of the Vice Presidents of the Commission.  He shall ensure the consistency of the Union’s external action.  He shall be responsible within the Commission for responsibilities incumbent on it in external relations and for coordinating other aspects of the Union’s external actions.”

Many Hats and No One-Stop Foreign Policy?

It is unrealistic to expect that the HR/VP, along with the new External Action Service, will create the oft-touted one voice.  The principle of unanimity remains in foreign and security policy.  Would Sarkozy, Merkel, and Brown reach agreement more quickly through the HR/VP or the External Action Service in a conflict scenario similar to Iraq?  Most likely, not.  But one can and should expect that decision-making processes and implementation of policy are better coordinated and synergies are made possible and exploited.  Achievement of this aim should be the main standard for judging all proposals under discussion in regard to creation of the EEAS.

At the same time, the question remains, How to achieve better coordination and consistency?  From the outset, there have been two approaches to this issue: a maximalist, more integrative one and a minimalist, more status-quo-based one.  Here, the foreign-policy instruments of the Commission and the Council are at the center of the debate.  At stake are both the more than €8 billion in annual external financial assistance (Commission) (1) and the 14 active civilian and military CSDP missions taking place across the entire world (13 missions have already ended as of March 2010).

Under the maximalist approach, all the instruments are tossed into a common toolkit and used as needed.  The decision on an EU mission or the allocation of EU funds would continue to rest with the member states and the College of Commissioners.  Catherine Ashton would, however, have co-decision-making power.  Both the preparatory process and implementation of a decision would come from one source.  Under this scenario, the current departments of the Commission and the Council Secretariat would be brought together, say, in the area of crisis management.  This requires flexibility from both sides in accordance with the Lisbon Treaty.

Under the minimalist approach, the EEAS would have a purely watchdog function in respect to consistency.  Policies, instruments, and the persons exercising them are not brought together but remain separate.  The HR/VP’s task would be exclusively to review whether the relevant procedures and instruments complement each other or, in a worst case, pursue conflicting goals.  Here, Ms. Ashton would signal to both the member states and the Commission that something is wrong or that we could be more effective.  She herself, however, would not have any decision-making power, which would continue to lie solely with the responsible commissioners or the relevant director at the Council Secretariat.

The EEAS between Fronts

Which approach is chosen over the other is mainly up to two players: the member states and the Commission.  At the same time, their decisions are mutually dependent on each other.  If the Commission goes the minimalist course, the member states will be more inclined to do the same, and visa-a-versa.

In the case of the minimalist approach, the question arises whether a new structure such as the EEAS, which would impose considerable cost, is even needed.  What should be avoided in any event, however, is a hybrid of the two approaches, which would obscure competences, swell staff, and lead to a reversal of already communitized policies.  This tendency is inherent in the current proposals.

The foreign ministries of the member states want the current Council Secretariat structures for planning and implementation of EU missions to remain separate - with distinct recruitment, procedures and status of staff.  They would not be entirely integrated into the External Action Service but would continue to exist within it as a special structure (3). 
Member states would also like to have more say in matters.  They are striving to have the Commission’s financial instruments for crisis management (Instrument for Stability and the CFSP budget) separated from the Commission and placed under the single control of the High Representative - which would give them larger say.

Does Abolishment of the Commission’s Directorate-General Development Loom?

Similarly unacceptable is the approach "give us the money, but without the Commission," as favored by many member states in the field of development assistance.  The programming and strategic direction of the allocation of development assistance funds would be carried out by the External Action Service, but by diplomats and without the current expertise in development policy.  In end effect, the Commission’s Directorate-General Development would be done away with, here, too, reversing Community method.  A hybrid in development policy should therefore be rejected in respect to the strategic direction and objectives of the financial instruments.  Either all the Commission decision-making structures in development policy, and thus their expertise and objectives, are to be moved to the External Action Service or development policy remains with the Commission.  Either responsibility for the strategic direction and allocation of financial instruments is shared by the Development Commissioner and the HR/VP or decision-making rests alone with the responsible Commissioner.  In any event, the member states must not gain a new veto right.

The Commission, in turn, prefers the status quo when it comes to linking energy security, climate change, or trade to traditional diplomacy.  Here, the new service is not to have any expert staff and is to rely exclusively on the Commission.  Yet even under the minimalist approach, the External Action Service needs experts precisely in these areas in order even to be able to point out duplication, counterproductive decisions, and efficiency deficits.

Hardened Fronts

Over the past months, the fronts have hardened.  Already in October 2009, the member states decided to treat the Council structures for EU missions in a special manner.  Since then, they have not backed away from this position but have instead attempted to create facts on the ground. For example, last February, a new civil-military planning directorate was created in the Council Secretariat, which is now to be kept separate from the rest of the service. This will make coordination and synergy gains with the Commission crisis management instruments more difficult, if not impossible.  Commission President José Manuel Barroso also created his own facts on the ground without considering the member states: The portfolio for European neighborhood policy was given to the Enlargement Commissioner and important delegation posts were filled.

What is now at stake in light of this hardening of positions?  In the interest of a modern, European, and effective EU policy, the maximalist approach makes the most sense.  In this conflict between the Commission and the member states, the European Parliament must be the voice that continues to clearly set the course.  Yet there is a risk that the matter will end in unsatisfying hybrid solutions.  It must therefore also be the task of the European Parliament to prevent any hybrids that would reverse the Community method and/or unilaterally reduce the entire range of EU external policies to traditional diplomacy.  The European Parliament must therefore also clearly signal that an expandable, minimalist option is possible and better than nonfunctioning basic structures.

How Much and Which Staff Does the EEAS Need?

The horror scenario of a nonfunctioning service becomes even more likely when one considers that potentially many positions will be created – without a new function being delegated to the EEAS. 
Frightening numbers continue to swirl over the future size of the EEAS; there is talk of thousands upon thousands of positions.  High numbers could become a reality if the member states’ desire to provide at least one-third  of the positions by 2012 or 2013 is met.  That figure, however, appears nowhere in the Lisbon Treaty.  It was a decision of the 27 governments, which Catherine Ashton regrettably accepted “as is.”  The new Staff Regulation draft, along with Ashton’s draft on the External Action Service, envisages one-third of the personnel coming from member states by 2013.

The entire EEAS staff is to be funded from the EU budget, including those from the 27 member states.  Current Commission foreign-policy staff (mainly at the more than 130 delegations) already comprises roughly 4,0000 people when all the posts are added together and development policy is included.  One can assume that these people will not merely be let go or sent into retirement.  Under this scenario, the member states’ request for one-third of the positions by 2013 therefore means at least 2,000 additional posts – an expensive undertaking.  Even less clear is which tasks these additional positions are to assume.  Neither is there one cent more to be spent, nor are there many new tasks to be performed.  In fact, synergies are supposed to be created.

For these reasons, the European Parliament must either resist the one-third staffing from member states, postpone attainment of this goal until the distant future, or call on the member states to transfer current national tasks to the service in order thus to cut those positions at the national level.  It would be easiest to do that in the consular sphere.  But so far a minority of member states is still backing away from this alternative.

Systematically replacing the EU Council Presidency by the EEAS in external relations, especially at the United Nations, could be a good investment.  Otherwise, the new service will swell into an artificially bloated bureaucracy – and that cannot be in the interest of the European Parliament.

The Role of the Secretary-General – Or Who Will Organize the Coordination for Mrs. Ashton?

Current plans envisage a strong Secretary-General who will oversee not only budget and administration but also all substantative matters, in addition to performing representative tasks – a strong function, especially as no deputies with comprehensive authority to issue instructions to the service are planned.  In a national ministry, such a strong figure can ensure unity and effectiveness.  But the new European service is not a national ministry.  Catherine Ashton will neither alone appoint the Secretary-General, nor be able to dismiss or transfer him, as a national minister may do.  In the case of the Secretary-General, the member states will at least have a say.  This also makes the loyalties clear:  They will not lie solely with Ashton.  This powerful person also would not have any democratic legitimacy – Ashton was co-appointed by the European Parliament, but not the Secretary-General.

To ensure the necessary unity and effectiveness, Ashton needs a planning and coordinating entity placed directly between her and the highest adminstrative level.  The staff of this entity should not have any authority to draw on or issue instructions to the directorates-general but indeed the right to turn back memos and documents from the directorates-general to Ashton for revision. 

Above all, it must be ensured that the Secretary-General is appointed not by the member states but by Ashton.

The European Parliament must now speak loudly as the voice calling for a sensible EEAS which serves European interests – stronger and better in external affairs and balanced in internal affairs between the intergovernmental and Community method.


(1) European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (2007-2013): ≈ 12 billion
European Development Fund (2008-2013): ≈ 22.682 billion
Development Cooperation Instrument (2007-2013): ≈ 16.9 billion
European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (2007-2013): ≈ 1.104 billion
Instrument for Stability (2007-2013): ≈ 2.062 billion

(2)  As of March 2010, there will be 13 completed CSDP and EU missions and there will be 14 active CSDP and EU missions (6 in the Western Balkans, Caucasus and Eastern Europe; 3 in the Middle East; 1 in Central Asia; 4 in Africa).  In May, EUTM Somalia will increase the number of active missions to 15.

(3) “The crisis management and planning directorate, the civilian planning and conduct capability, the European Union Military Staff and the European Union Situation Center, placed under the direct authority and responsibility of the High Representative in her capacity as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; the specificities of these structures, as well as the particularities of their functions, recruitment and the status of the staff shall be respected.”  Proposal for a Council Decision of (date) establishing the organization and functioning of the European External Action Service (March 25, 2010).

Franziska Brantner, Member of European Parliament, is a Green member of the Committee on External Affairs of the European Parliament and a member of the Europe/Transatlantic Advisory Council of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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