Can we resolve the High Representative’s ‘system glitch’ ?

(B2) The reforms included in the Lisbon Treaty were aimed at developing a European foreign policy and raising Europe’s voice in the world by merging the positions of Vice-President of the Commission and High Representative. Ten years later, the results are limited

High Representative Fed. Mogherini at the Eastern Partnership’s summit in May 2019 (credit : EU Council)

Hoping for efficiency

In the 2000s, it was believed that by merging an array of different functions — Vice-President of the European Commission, President of the Foreign Affairs Council, observer Member of the European Council, Head of the European External Action Service and of the European Defence Agency —, institutional conflicts would be put to an end. We would hence give both force and means (human, financial) to the head of European diplomacy. The ambition was great… But the Mogherini experience, after the Ashton experiment, demonstrated it. Between theory and reality, there is a gap that the new position of High Representative has failed to overcome.

Dynamism does not suffice

The former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs has not lacked dynamism or willpower. Present on all fronts, she has been everywhere (in the European Parliament, the European Council, the Commission, the Council of Ministers). A little too much perhaps, not allowing her much time to understand all the issues fully. To coordinate external action, she has set up a dedicated group of commissioners. She has reorganized the structure of the Council of Ministers to make room for the unexpected, like current affairs’ debates. She has insisted on debating more among ministers and wasting less time writing paragraphs of conclusions. The effort is notable. But nonetheless… Her work has not been rewarded with success. Whoever occupies the position, there is a system glitch (I was already denouncing a defect in design in 2011).

A system glitch on multiple levels

The position’s triple agenda is fit for a superhuman being

Even a perfectly organized and dynamic woman cannot suffice. One has to make a choice : either concentrate on two or three issues and leave the rest aside (Ashton’s tactic), or go through all the files, one after the other, and exhaust yourself without convincing results (Mogherini’s tactic). We can try everything. There is no strategy that seems truly effective. No one can be in Tehran to negotiate an agreement on Sunday, come back in Brussels to chair the Council of Foreign Ministers on Monday, present the results to the European Parliament on Tuesday, answer the MEPs questions in front of the European Commission on Wednesday, fly to Addis Ababa to meet with the African Union on Thursday, be in a European capital to prepare for an upcoming meeting on Friday. It is not human. It is not serious.

There is no reason this arrangment should work

This combination of functions has very concrete political and even psychological implications that disturb the day-to-day functioning of a High Representative. Demonstrating dynamism and boldness to take initiatives (when at the Commission). Chairing the proceedings as neutrally as possible (when in the Council). Representing all member states externally in a dynamic way, with sufficient media interpersonal skills, while keeping a low enough profile to allow everyone to have their say. Having the tactical sense to negotiate with the leaders of this world. While speaking loudly still, to assert the European voice. All these responsibilities are somewhat… contradictory.

Two obstacles

The creation of a High Representative superman or superwoman has never been totally accepted, not by the members States, nor by the European Commission.

The Member states reluctance

Even if they openly declare their desire for a common foreign policy, the member States have their own way. Big countries – especially France or the United Kingdom – have different instruments at their disposal (the United Nations Security Council, a large network of embassies) that relegate the common policy to the background. Common policy that they only use when they need it. In many cases, they directly took the negotiation of certain international crises into their own hands (Iran, Russia-Ukraine…). Many countries do not hesitate to trample on European positions as soon as their national interest is at stake, even on previously consensual issues (on Jerusalem, human rights, the dialogue with Africa).

The European Commission undermines

The European institutions play the same game. The European Commission is thus pursuing a continuous policy of ‘undermining’. The institution has always regretted having to give up some of its external assets, such as the DG Relex (Directorate-General for External Relations) and its EU delegations to a new structure that emerged from nowhere (the EEAS). Since then, it has been constantly trying to recover this lost skill. Both within DG DevCo (development) and DG Near (enlargement – neighborhood) can one still find ‘desks’ by geographical area. They largely duplicate those of the EEAS instead of relying on them as they were supposed to.

A dual hierarchy still very much present

In the European Union’s delegations scattered around the world, the Commission’s ‘officials’ often want to distinguish themselves from the Member States’ ‘diplomats’ and the European diplomatic establishment. With the creation of the European Defense Fund, the Commission is also recovering one hell of a skill and a substantial expertise that was previously the ‘monopoly’ of the European External Action Service.

No one wants the job, surprisingly

The result is patent. In the race for European top jobs, the chief of the European diplomacy is no longer desired, neither by the European politicians nor by the Member States. While several personalities have expressed, more or less publicly, their candidacy for the head of the European Commission and the European Council, the High Representative’s chair remains surprisingly empty. The situation was very different five years ago (1). The position is no longer conceived as a consolation prize for the ones who would not have had the position they wanted (European Commission, European Council or European Parliament), for example Frans Timmermans. Only one candidacy has been reported so far, that of the Slovak Šefčovič, and again, it is a second best. No country really claims this position, aware that it is a very busy one and without real power.

A few lessons for the future

We are not going to review the Treaty today, but we can arrange it to solve certain problems. Tomorrow, the European Parliament and the member States will not be able to avoid a deeper reflection on the position of High Representative in order to resize, support and divide it to make it fully effective.

Reality check

On a philosophical level, we can say RIP (Rest In Peace), at least for the moment, to a single foreign policy, or even one simply common to all Member States. It is not about diminishing ambition : it could be a medium or long term goal. But we must remain realistic. The European Union’s foreign policy is complementary to the one pursued by the Member States and the latter remains a matter of national sovereignty. Any attempt to pursue a policy of ‘strength’ could be condemned to marginalisation. The proposal to have qualified majority decisions on defense and foreign policy could very quickly lead to a counter-productive effect : the States in the minority would have no hesitation to override the non-consensual decision.

A detailed job description

When choosing the future High Representative, it will be necessary to define a real job profile. And not just fill a box at the end of the European leaders’ nomination journey, as it is currently the case, the High Representative then having to fulfill the criteria that the other top jobs’ holders did not meet. In other words, do we want as High Representative a super diplomat who adjusts the positions of the Member States behind the scenes – a bit like Herman Van Rompuy did when presiding over the European Council – and goes to negotiate with the leaders of this world in the name of the European Union ? Or do we want a ‘head of the European diplomacy’ able to command and assert a European position ? (2)

A clear organisation

In terms of organisation, it will be necessary to solve the mess that is this accumulation of responsibilities impossible to honor. In practice, we should consider the possibility of equipping the High Representative with deputies with a political background. For example, a delegate for ‘security’ affairs. Today, the Treaty says nothing on this issue. It is not that it forbids it, it is just silent. This leaves room to maneuver. One could also simply consider that the Commissioner ‘Neighborhood’ has authority over the entire Balkan area, including the leadership (on behalf of the High Representative) over the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, or that the Commissioner ‘Development Africa’ has jurisdiction over all relations with the African Union. Thus symplifying a little the disorganised image that the European Union projects outside.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. Five years ago, at the same time, we had at least five potential candidates… Today… they are hard to find !
  2. Just the question of the functions’ fusion and the presence of the same person in multiple European institutions seems questionable from a constitutional point of view.

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).