Two forgotten tools of European crisis management diplomacy: to be revived?

(B2) The difficulty of constituting the contact group created by the Europeans for Venezuela as well as its incongruous side raise questions. Couldn’t we have a more reactive European diplomacy?

The troïka method is not all that bad! JY Le Drian (FR), J. Hunt (UK) et H. Maas (GER), representatives of the E3, speaking on Iran in Bucarest (credit : Romanian presidency of the EU)

To be sure, you have to bring together as many countries as possible and have a single voice. Certainly, it is important to take care not to offend the sensitivities of some and the interests of others. But there is a moment when you have to ask yourself: how far do you have to go to be inclusive? Is it necessary to speak in a single voice, if it is to speak in a low voice? Can we not be more present and quick when a crisis appears in a given country? These are reflections that are made in European corridors. I would add one: why did we abandon the tools used a few years ago, which no doubt had faults, but also qualities? Two ‘tools’ could easily be resurrected.

First tool: Appointing a special envoy or representative for a crisis zone

A sort of missi dominici, responsible for commuting between the various parties to restore the threads of dialogue, the special envoy or special representative (see box) was responsible of representing the face of Europe in a crisis and identifying possible solutions.

This task could be entrusted to a ‘politician’ (former Minister of Foreign Affairs, former Prime Minister, former European Commissioner) or a former senior official from a national diplomatic service (secretary general, etc.), and not just to a simple diplomat. This would have some advantages: relieving the High Representative of some negotiating tasks; associating other people with European diplomacy, to have a political vision of a crisis and not only a diplomatic one.

In order to succeed, this function must remain temporary, only during the crisis. It is imperative to avoid this function becoming embedded afterwards and taking the place of ordinary diplomacy. This is too often the case with the special representatives currently on the job who often have little to do with crisis management (1). As soon as the acute crisis is over, the task should fall to the usual diplomats.

Second tool: Appointing a troïka or a pair of Member States

This method may seem ancestral today. Indeed, it dates from before the Lisbon Treaty and the concentration of powers in the hands of the High Representative. It proceeded from the three rotating presidencies. It had an advantage: to involve three countries, sometimes very different, closely in solving a problem. Today, the existence of the High Representative makes the obligation obsolete. However, it does not deny the effectiveness of the process or the possibility of using it.

Having two or three European diplomacies, sometimes very different, conducting negotiations, illustrates both the diversity of approach of Europeans as well as their unique message. It has been used successfully, and continues to be, in solving the Iranian nuclear problem (E3 = France, Germany, United Kingdom). It remains customary for the question of Ukraine (E2 = France, Germany) or for the question of Yemen (E4 = France, Germany, United Kingdom + Italy). One could imagine other formats for other crises.

Instead of an overabundant and very late group (2), a troïka ‘Greece, Italy, Spain’ on Venezuela could have been interesting, with some being close to Maduro and others to Guaido. All very relevant, because of their historical or immigration ties with the country. We could associate a country which is ‘more neutral’ because it is less affected by the crisis, such as Romania which currently chairs the Union. That way, we would have quickly had a European-style ‘contact group’, which would have been set up at the start of the crisis, and not in the middle of it.

The two tools ‘special envoy’ and ‘troïka’ are not contradictory, they can be very well combined.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)


Special envoy or special representative

A subtle distinction exists. The special envoy can be created on an ad hoc basis by the High Representative or the European Commission according to a profile defined by the institution that creates him and financed from its internal budget (‘administration’ line of the EU budget). The EU Special Representative is a post provided for in the Treaty, which requires a proposal from the High Representative, a decision by the Member States, with a written mandate, published in the Official Journal. It is financed by a specific budget decided annually (within the ‘CFSP’ line of the EU budget).


  1. Read: Huit représentants spéciaux enkystés dans le paysage
  2. Read: Le groupe de contact international sur le Venezuela, enfin, créé ! Sous leadership européen

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).