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A unified EU in foreign policy?

March 2, 2011

The New York Times ran an interesting profile several weeks ago of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Her official title is High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a post arising from the Lisbon Treaty, which came into effect in 2009. The article specifically addresses criticism that had been directed at Ms. Ashton for her perceived lack of initiative in responding to the crises in first Tunisia and then Egypt. The article points out that Ms. Ashton’s statements tended to lag behind those of national leaders. Similar complaints were lodged against her for her failure to visit Haiti following that country’s devastating earthquake. The EU’s top diplomat seems to have taken some of the criticism to heart during the current Libyan situation, with a series of forceful condemnations of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Nevertheless, some of Ashton’s timidity is likely the inevitable product of the lack of union-wide consensus on foreign policy issues, as well as the overall ambiguity of her role and how it fits into the EU’s institutional architecture. Regarding the former, foreign and security policy have always been the two issues in which EU countries are most reluctant to cede sovereignty. This explains the use of unanimous voting for these issues in the Council of the EU, as opposed to the qualified majority voting that is used for most issues. This shouldn’t be a great shock. The ability to conduct an independent foreign policy is one of the chief hallmarks of statehood, so it is no surprise that state’s would guard their autonomy in this policy realm very closely. However, the creation of Ms. Ashton’s post was supposed to enable the EU to speak with a more unified voice, and it is unclear at this point whether that has been the case.

Charlemagne’s blog over at The Economist has featured a couple of recent blogs detailing the twists and turns of European policy regarding the Libyan crisis. One post in particular describes Italian worries over a flood of Libyan refugees. These worries, along with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s fairly cordial relationship with Gaddafi, were cited to explain Italy’s initial failure to criticize the violent crackdown against protestors. Under current EU refugee law, the responsibility for processing migrants belongs to the country of first entry. Italy has argued that this is unfair to frontline states and that migrant processing should be done collectively. Although Italy has subsequently come around to criticizing Gaddafi’s regime for its harsh crackdown, this episode illustrates the difficulties that will inhere in any attempts to give the EU a more singular voice on foreign policy matters. Given the divergent policy goals prioritized by different EU states, Ashton’s deliberative, timid approach might be the best the EU can hope for.

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