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The Dark Side Of Lisbon

Herman Van Rompuy (left) and Catherine Ashton, pallbearers for a united EU foreign policy?
Herman Van Rompuy (left) and Catherine Ashton, pallbearers for a united EU foreign policy?
BRUSSELS -- Far from injecting new impetus into the European Union's foreign policy, the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force on December 1, is likely to further sap its effectiveness.

As a result of the treaty's coming into effect, the institutional underpinnings and basic assumptions of EU foreign policy now require adjustment in a manner that will diminish the importance of its communal (also described, variously, as the supranational, federalist, or integrationist) element.

Under the guise of the "streamlining" changes introduced by Lisbon, member states will wrest back most of the control over external relations they had ceded to the European Commission over the past decade.

As a result, the leverage the EU can bring to bear on events beyond its borders will be increasingly generated along axes connecting national capitals -- bypassing Brussels.

This will have a number of important consequences. Most immediately, the EU's flagship "eastern neighborhood" project will be gradually stripped of political dynamism and support.

No large (or small, for that matter) EU member state is interested in aggravating its relations with Russia. As Moscow has made abundantly clear, this is precisely what any real extension of Western influence into former Soviet territory would bring with it.

Only higher, shared ends and values can check the national instinct of self-interest. With the decline of the role of the European Commission heralded by the way the Lisbon Treaty is being put into practice, it is inevitable that the EU's encouragement of political and economic reforms beyond its borders will gradually become less a political imperative and more a project carried forward by bureaucratic inertia provided by existing mechanisms of cooperation.

End Of Expansion

Nowhere is this tendency brought into clearer relief than in the European Commission's announcement last week of an impending merger of its enlargement and (most of the) neighborhood directorates.

Welcomed by some observers as possibly signaling a boost to the aspirations of those countries not yet granted accession prospects, the move is far more likely to have the opposite effect. It threatens to remove the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) from the sphere of the political and anchor it firmly in that of the "administration of things."

The horizons of the ENP will not expand. Instead, they will be limited -- like those of the enlargement policy -- to the carrying out of existing projects where groundbreaking moments of political decision-making by EU member states are separated by longer and longer periods of bureaucratic routine in the form of consultation and assessment.

The key advantage the candidates for enlargement -- meaning the Balkan states, but not necessarily Turkey -- will have is that they already have the political incentive of a confirmed EU membership promise. None of the neighborhood countries have this. This difference is likely to be reflected in the quality of the reforms they will end up implementing.

Not for nothing was the merger of the two European Commission structures a French initiative. France has become notoriously skeptical of further EU enlargement, and increasingly friendly towards Russia (witness the planned sale to Moscow of an advanced assault warship, despite the vocal protests of smaller Eastern European allies, or the commitment exacted from Paris by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week to take a stake in the South Stream gas pipeline).

National Power Grab

This general logic of member-state ascendancy, to the detriment of the EU's communal pillar -- and the hopes of eastern neighbors-- runs through all of the institutional reforms stemming from the Lisbon Treaty.

Thus, Catherine Ashton's double-hatted appointment as EU foreign minister and vice president of the European Commission is effectively a power grab by the (larger) EU member states. It is a bid to "reseal" the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), traditionally an exclusive domain of national capitals, parts of which seemed to have leaked to the European Commission in the first half of this decade.

When Chris Patten, the EU's then-external relations commissioner, called for EU member states to "sing from the same hymn book" in 2004, he could do so because his power base, the European Commission, had succeeded in carving out a niche independent of the member states.

This niche, fortified by appeals to the value added by joint action and, to a degree, the moral force of the EU's "basic values" of which the commission professed to be a guardian, has now virtually disappeared.

This has been a long process likely to be brought to a close by Ashton's appointment. Her full title reads high representative for foreign policy. That job is within the gift of the member states, which she will represent (as will Herman van Rompuy as the president of the European Council tasked with chairing EU summits). Tellingly, Ashton has yet to decide whether to set up office in the European Commission's Berlaymont headquarters or the EU Council of Ministers building across the street.

The new commissioner for enlargement and neighborhood policy (subject to approval by the European Parliament), Stefan Fuele, will play a largely administrative role, EU officials say. In the enlargement part of his portfolio, this is established practice, with member states deciding which countries to invite to accession talks and when to close them. In neighborhood policy, officials say, Fuele's remit will be similar -- devoid of all political function. He will effectively act as Ashton's "assistant," one Brussels official says.

Losing Its Voice

Eventually, Ashton will move into the future headquarters of the External Action Service (EAS), an embryonic diplomatic corps for the EU, up to 8,000-strong, mandated by the Lisbon Treaty. The EAS will be the future vessel of most significant joint EU diplomacy. As such, it can only be a continuation of member-state foreign policies -- limited to the passing on and putting into practice of political instructions that can only emanate from member-state capitals.

There is a power struggle currently under way between the national capitals and the European Parliament over control over the new agency's finances (and, less importantly, staffing). The parliament is trying to put the EAS within the remit of the European Commission, whose finances it controls. However, commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is said to be unenthusiastic about that move, even though it would extend his powers, for fear of falling out with the member states. His record over the past five years backs that assessment.

A final decision is expected next spring. It is highly likely the member states will get their way, as, first, CFSP remains within their gift, and second, they are in ultimate control of the EU's purse strings, providing the lion's share of the bloc's annual budget.

The picture that emerges is very far from that predicted by the more optimistic commentators of a European Union with a vibrant joint foreign policy, and possibly its own army. Among other things, far from emulating the mutual defense commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO (itself increasingly shaky) charter, the untried "solidarity clause" contained in the Lisbon Treaty applies to man-made and natural catastrophes and terrorist attacks, but cannot be evoked against other countries.

The Lisbon Treaty in its early application has failed to surmount the in-built limits of the EU's foreign policy. In fact, it is already contributing to their further constriction.

The EU's foreign policy is increasingly what the larger member states want it to be -- or it is nothing. It is arguable that even the preference for the "lowest common denominator," so often imputed to the EU in the past, is becoming an anachronism. There are either EU positions that accommodate the interests of the larger member states, or there are none. This has been the case at least since the end of the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008.

In a second and subtler way, the EU's choices are also increasingly constrained by the changing international context. The rise of the "new powers" such as China, India, Brazil, and others -- enthusiastically welcomed by the EU -- is only serving to distract its member states further.

As a result, the EU is left to exercise "leadership" in areas where there is no competition, such as climate change. In areas where the world's big powers have vested interests, competition does exist, and there the EU is struggling to hold its own.

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL