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The European External Action Service: Delivering a coherent, whole-of-government approach?

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Christian Leffler - Deputy Director-General, European Commission DG Development

Charles Grant - Director, Centre for European Reform


Eloise Todd - ONE


Simon Maxwell - Senior Research Associate, ODI

1.      Simon Maxwell introduced the debate series, ‘Europe at the heart of international development?  International development at the heart of Europe?’ by outlining some of the work of the European Development Cooperation Support Programme at ODI.  He welcomed everybody to the first event in the series and introduced the panellists. 

2.      Christian Leffler began by outlining that he would seek to address two fundamental points: (a) the purpose of the newly created European External Action Service (EEAS) and (b) how development fits into it. 

3.      A key element of the lengthy discussions that led to the creation of the Lisbon Treaty was the desire to make the EU a more effective actor on the global stage.  Ensuring effectiveness and coherence are the driving force behind the establishment of the EEAS and the ‘double-hatted’ position of a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/ Vice President of the Commission.  The objectives to be pursued in EU external relations are clearly set out in the Treaty (article 21), with Member States obligating themselves, through the creation of the role of High Representative, to promote greater coherence in common European action. 

4.      This is where the EEAS comes into play.  Until now, foreign affairs-related services at the EU level have been separated both within the Commission and between Commission and Council Secretariat.  All of this is now to be consolidated in the form of the EEAS. Whilst there will be other services within the Commission responsible for specific aspects of external relations – such as DG Development – the EAS will take over most of the responsibility for policy analysis, strategy and coordination, both across policies – from formulation to implementation – and across the EU.  Coordination has always been – and, Christian suspects, will remain – the most challenging aspect of European action.  He stressed that coherence is not something that can be imposed; instead, the EU views its role as facilitating coherence, leading by example and proving its added value by doing so. 

5.      Development, Christian continued, has always been an important part of the EU’s external relations.  There is a tendency, both inside and outside Europe – to see development as separate to other parts of external relations, which he believes is a mistake.  The whole purpose of bringing structures together in the EEAS is to break down historic separations between policy areas and to draw on all policies and instruments at the EU’s disposal.  The question, therefore, in the context of the EU’s external objectives is how best to put to use the range of policies and instruments with a proper development focus.  The Commission is not a typical actor on the international stage, given its size, leverage and ability to mobilise resources; its role therefore is one of bringing resources together and developing an international agenda that goes beyond traditional diplomacy, working towards shared goals of security and economic security, amongst others, within a multilateral framework. 

6.      This, then, is the purpose of the EEAS: a single service working for Ashton and the other Commissioners, to ensure joined up policy formulation, greater coherence and more effective mobilisation of resources.  Its creation is in no way a coup by European Foreign Ministers of development; indeed, if sufficiently ambitious, the result could be the reverse.

7.      Charles Grant began by expressing the opposite view: it would be good if the new structures did represent a takeover of development by foreign policy.  He outlined seven key questions in response to Christian Leffler’s address:

    1. Will the EEAS have sufficient resources – both financial and human – to be able to fulfil its role?  If we don’t get the establishment of the service right, Europe will be permanently disabled on the global stage.  Hopefully the new structure will be able to be modified and evolve over the years. 
    2. Will the EEAS be autonomous and have its own agenda?  If so, the Member States will not trust it and will refuse to work with it, meaning that it will be doomed from the beginning. 
    3. Will High Representative Ashton have deputies? 
    4. What will the priorities be in terms of external relations?  In Charles’ view, they should be the neighbourhood, India/ Russia/ China, and crisis management.
    5. The European Parliament has emerged as the “biggest winner” from the Lisbon Treaty.  Will it try to micromanage foreign policy given its power over the budget?
    6. There is much talk about how foreign policy will be coordinated in the new EEAS.  But what about other aspects of EU policy, such as justice and home affairs?
    7. How can the engagement of the big Member States’ in the EEAS be ensured?  The EEAS will fail if states such as the UK or France perceive it as working against their interests. 

8.      Overall, Charles stressed, the key point is that EU policy needs to be joined up.  He argued that the position in some development circles that development should remain ‘pure’ is mistaken.  Development policy is the best instrument the EU has at its disposal in its external relations.  Whilst other countries are shaping the global order, the EU “remains weak and irrelevant”; the EU needs to define its interests, one of which is very clearly poverty reduction. 

9.      Eloise Todd began by pointing out that the Lisbon Treaty did two major things: (a) it strengthened development policy by explicitly clearly stating that the EU’s development policy must have the overall aim of the eradication of poverty and (b) it set up the post of the High Representative and the EEAS, which is created to serve the mandate of the High Representative.  Policy coordination is paramount with development as one of a range of tools, but this does not mean, in Eloise’s view, that the High Representative must have a say over the development budget of the EU.  The EEAS holds great potential but, in her view, development budgets must remain focussed on the prerogative of poverty reduction and therefore under the control of the Development Commissioner. 

10.  Eloise continued that it is important to recognise the specificity of development and to recognise the inherent tensions between foreign and development policies.  Without a clear chain of budgetary command, the door is potentially opened to the politicisation of development funds.  Eloise suggested that the High Representative should focus on the aspects of greatest European policy incoherence - trade, the Common Agricultural Policy, fisheries policy. She concluded by emphasising that time is running out in the negotiations on the shape of the EEAS and urged several minor textual changes to the Council proposals that would safeguard the EU’s development funds from future politicisation. 

11.  Discussion was then opened up to the floor and ranged across:

    1. The potential for the EEAS to transcend the historic divisions between foreign policy and development policy, with an ability to be more nuanced at country level. 
    2. The role of development within the new National Security Council in the UK, on which Andrew Mitchell, as Secretary of State for Development, will sit. 
    3. The politicisation of development: Christian Leffler argued that development policy is a necessary complement to foreign policy and that development is already politicised; Eloise Todd was concerned by the potential diversion of aid to non-poverty focussed foreign policy objectives. 
    4. Whether or not Western donors, including the EU should be doing more ‘Chinese-type’, condition-free development.
    5. How the new structures can best ensure commitments to improve linkages across the relief-rehabilitation-development spectrum: Christian responded that bringing together all desks in the EEAS will hopefully ensure a stronger analytical, strategic and programmatic approach. 

12.  Simon Maxwell closed the meeting by thanking all who had taken part and with a reminder of the next events in the series


Over the coming weeks, as EU policy-makers finalise the arrangements for the functioning of the European External Action Service (EEAS), their choices will have an indirect but no less important effect on the EU’s ability to live up to its potential as a constructive proactive and effective actor on the international stage. It remains to be seen how prominent development will be in the new set-up, and whether the architecture will help to promote coherent EU external action.  Will development have more leverage over other areas than before, so as to ensure real development effectiveness rather than just aid effectiveness?