Catherine Ashton speaking at the Munich Security Conference.

The EU's struggle to become a foreign-policy player


Can you point out the woman in the photograph who is responsible for the EU's foreign policy? No? You're not alone. You are one of the many people who are unable to keep track of the numerous individuals and institutions involved directly or indirectly in the EU's efforts to assert its interests abroad.

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Making sense of it all is truly a challenge.  

The woman in question is Lady Ashton from the UK. When she was appointed by the member states she had virtually no experience in the area of foreign policy. Unfortunately, there was no time for her to make amends, since she also faced the mammoth task of creating a new foreign-policy apparatus for the EU. From the very start she found herself overshadowed by her more prominent colleagues, the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. She is not even responsible for relations with the EU's immediate neighbors, since a Commissioner for Enlargement exists to handle that.

As for the crisis in Ukraine, which has everyone holding their breath, you didn't blink and miss her, since she wasn't allowed to get involved in the first place. Other important foreign-policy fields such as climate protection and trade and development policy are also excluded from her mandate. Moreover, the heads of state and government of the 28 EU member countries, together with their foreign ministers, like to take to the international stage to pursue their own foreign-policy agendas, rarely giving the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy an opportunity to shine.     

The situation is hardly effective and generally means that the EU is not able to make its full weight felt. Compared to other global powers such as the US, Russia and China, it often gets lost in the shuffle. The Europeans even have trouble responding to regional crises, something that has been apparent for a while. The EU has been trying to become a potent foreign-policy player for quite some time now. Yet until the member states become willing to clear the stage in favor of their EU counterparts, the situation will remain anything but satisfactory.   

Things could easily be different. After the European elections, the EU member states could show that they are capable of learning from the past. Instead of someone who is largely unknown and who lacks sufficient foreign-policy and administrative experience, they could choose an adept foreign-policy expert, preferably someone with charisma, as the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, an individual who is respected and well known, both among his or her European peers and internationally. That alone would give the EU's foreign policy the recognition factor and gravitas that have long been lacking.

The member states could even do more – without any unwieldy attempt to alter the Union's treaties. They could make use of their newly created European External Action Service more systematically and directly than in the past, drawing on its expertise to develop long-term policy strategies, among other things. They could also benefit from a more synergetic use of the EU's diplomatic representatives abroad, in the area of consular services, for example – something that could save up to €1.3 billion a year, as shown by the Bertelsmann Stiftung study "The European Added Value of EU Spending: Can the EU Help its Member States to Save Money?" In times of limited public funds, that would hardly be a small gain.