For more than a decade, the European Union (EU) has steadily aspired to become a more active and significant global actor. But its inherently burdensome institutional structure, in particular its focus on consensus, conciliation, and consideration based on a lowest common denominator in seeking to forge a convergence among the competing interesting of its 27 member states, has frequently prevented it from living up to its own expectations.
And the decision in May 2010 by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton
to abolish the position of EU special representatives (EUSR), including a number of special envoys who have handled some of the most delicate diplomatic challenges on behalf of the EU, seriously undermines its capacity to do so in the future.
These dozen special representatives, who have generally managed their portfolios with serious care and subtle craft, have endowed the EU with added weight and standing well beyond the European continent. Acting in some of the more volatile and most neglected "hot spots" of global diplomacy, including the Balkans, the South Caucasus, Moldova, and Central Asia, as well as the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa's Great Lakes region, they have accomplished much more on the ground than any officials in Brussels could have hoped to achieve.
According to her supporters, Ashton's decision reflected the need to integrate and unify the new European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's revamped diplomatic corps formed in accordance with the terms of the Lisbon Treaty. But others have derided the move as premature, depriving Brussels of an important diplomatic tool even before anything else can be implemented to take its place.
The shortsightedness of that approach is likely to become clear very soon in the South Caucasus, where career Swedish diplomat Ambassador Peter Semneby's five-year tenure as EUSR ended in late February. Semneby's untimely exit is a not just a loss for all concerned -- regional governments, the political opposition, civil society, those working hard on the ground to build a more resilient democracy, and analysts seeking to keep track of events. It is also a setback for Brussels at a crucial time.
First, Semneby's departure will weaken the EU's presence and position in the South Caucasus region, diminishing the access of the local governments to the EU and reducing the EU's leverage over these infant states, both recognized and unrecognized. In the months immediately before the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Semneby was quietly establishing a trust-based working relationship with the leadership of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia. Since the war, he has been point man for the EU's strategy of "engagement without recognition."
Second, Semneby, with his quiet manner and understated style, and ability to speak five languages in addition to his native Swedish, was uniquely placed to promote dialogue not only between regional states, but also between rival domestic political factions.
His "shuttle diplomacy" took him to Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan, all during the same visit. With the weight of the EU behind him, Semneby could not only bridge closed borders and interstate conflicts, he also ferried messages between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and his political rival, opposition leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and, in April-May 2009, between Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and the opposition parties intent on forcing his ouster, in the hope of convincing all involved of the necessity for dialogue and reconciliation.
Third, Semneby's quiet diplomacy aimed at calming tension even beyond the region itself took him to Russia, Turkey, and even Iran, each of which holds a significant role in terms of stability and security in the South Caucasus. Whether the EU will build on the specific contacts he forged in Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran remains an open question.
And fourth, as previously reported, the decision sends a strong, but wrong message
that the South Caucasus is no longer a strategic priority for the EU. And in these countries, public perception is very frequently more important than political reality.
On a broader level, the abolition of the EUSRs served to shed an embarrassing spotlight on the internal political strife within the EU as a whole, in which the larger member states steam-rollered the smaller or newer members. That lesson will not be lost on local authoritarian leaders if/when the opportunity to capitalize and exploit the diverging interests of EU statesmen emerges.
Semneby single-handedly gave the lie to Thomas de Waal's complaint (at a conference in Prague in November 2008 that Semneby and the co-authors attended) that "the EU is acting as a fireman in the South Caucasus where it should be acting as a smoke detector," excelling at both roles equally. It is a measure of his consummate skill that he did so without once getting his fingers burned.
-- Richard Giragosian and Liz Fuller