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The EU's New Diplomatic Service Gets Off To A Shaky Start

Does the EU's foreign policy chief have the charisma or the chops to lead a fragmented union?
As the crisis in Egypt developed, the European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, toiled behind the scenes, working to forge a consensus on the issue among the EU's 27 member states.

Not so British Foreign Minister William Hague. Instead, he made a headline-grabbing trip to the region on February 8-11 where he called for an orderly transition in Egypt that would include a broad-based government.

In the end, Hague's response to the crisis was in line with Ashton's and was well within the bounds of the EU consensus that eventually emerged. But the British Foreign Minister's rush to the spotlight as Ashton was working behind the scenes is illustrative of the difficulties inherent in forging a common foreign policy for the EU's 27 member states.

Common Front vs. National Sovereignty

It also highlights the ambivalence of EU members, who on one hand say they want to establish a common European foreign policy, but on the other remain deeply protective of national prerogatives and sovereignty.

Just months into its existence, the European External Action Service (EEAS) is still a work in progress that is only going to be as effective as individual member states allow, analysts say. The service's growing pains are made more acute due to inadequate staffing and member states' concerns about its costs.

There are also questions as to whether Ashton has the necessary charisma and credentials to emerge as the face of a stronger and unified EU foreign policy or if she is content play second fiddle to more media-savvy national foreign ministers.

Rosa Balfour of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, points out that Ashton's low-key approach - which contrasts with the high-profile "hands on" attitude adopted by her predecessor, Javier Solana -- was actually what the member states were seeking in the post. Indeed, Balfour said Ashton was chosen precisely because she was "not Solana."

Three Camps On Egypt

When Ashton tried to forge consensus on Egypt, she found member states divided into three camps. Some, including Germany, wanted Brussels to call for Mubarak to step down immediately. Others, including Britain and France, were cautious and called for a "wait and see" attitude. And a third group, that included Italy, lobbied for sticking with Mubarak.

The EU’s uncertain response recalled its initial reaction to the upheaval in Tunisia. French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie initially offered to help President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali restore order days before he was ousted.

The EU only managed to forge a cohesive policy after Ben Ali was ousted, blocking the deposed leader's assets and suggesting that Brussels will "play a major role" in the country's forthcoming elections.

“Whilst Ben Ali was in power, the response was just appeals to avoid violence. It was only after Ben Ali left Tunisia that statements began to have more substance and content,” Balfour said.

Some officials like Ana Gomes, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament (MEP), said the Tunisia and Egypt crises should push the EU toward a greater focus on human rights and democracy, rather than coddling dictators in the name of stability.

“I think we ought to do much more and put our financial assistance in reinforcing civil society, in reinforcing the institutions that make a democracy run,” Gomes said.

Ashton's critics say her reluctance to travel to trouble spots has tainted her one-year stint in the office.

When an earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, she justified her decision not to visit by saying that she did not "want to be a disaster tourist." In an apparent attempt to mollify critics, officials said Ashton is planning a trip to the Middle East in the near future.

Repeated Delays

The new diplomatic service's launch was repeatedly delayed due to bickering over its powers and mandate among the EU's various institutions and among its member states.

The EEAS has a staff of just 3,700 diplomats, about a third of the size of the British Foreign Office, the German Foreign Ministry, or the French Foreign Ministry.

Moreover, most of the staff is drawn from officials who already hold posts in the European Commission or the Council Secretariat. Many are also national diplomats on loan to the EEAS.

Michael Emerson of the Center of European Policy Studies in Brussels said he believes that the number of EEAS officials must reach the same level of the big member states in the next 10 years for the EU to become a serious global actor.

This will require funding and political will, both of which appear to be in short supply, Emerson says:

"I would criticize the member states for their attempt to constrain the development of that service under the word ‘budget neutrality,' he said. "Which really means a budget [that is] frozen for starters or strangled at birth if you like.”

Whether Catherine Ashton and the EEAS will prevail depends on how the EU will respond to developments in its neighborhood. With an impressive arsenal of foreign policy tools such as aid, trade, civilian crisis management, and support for human rights activists, the EU can play a pivotal role.

In reimposing and extending visa sanctions on Belarusian officials last month, for example, Ashton showed the EU can respond quickly and decisively when united.
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.