Can EU be a unified voice on the world stage?


Lisbon explained - part 4:The treaty maintains intergovernmental decision making on foreign policy, but two new positions and an external action force could provide greater co-ordination for the EU's international dealings

ONE OF the big criticisms levelled at the EU is that despite establishing itself as an economic giant over past decades it remains a diplomatic and political minnow.

Advocates of the Lisbon Treaty say it will boost the union's capacity to act, and promote greater coherence and continuity when it addresses global issues. They present the institutional changes in the treaty - such as a new president of the European Council who can represent the union internationally - as one of its big selling points.

Those against the treaty argue that it represents a step too far and will remove the possibility for Ireland to retain a distinct foreign policy. Lisbon, they say, represents a move away from the intergovernmental method of deciding foreign policy (where states decide their own policy) to one of a supranational EU policy dominated by big member states.

Lisbon is unambiguous about the merits of a common European foreign and security policy: Amendment 10c states that the union shall "conduct, define and implement a common foreign and security policy, based on the development of mutual political solidarity". The treaty also requires that the union shall conduct the common foreign and security policy in the future by "strengthening systematic co-operation between member states in the conduct of policy".

But this does not mark a revolutionary leap forward. Under the Treaty of Maastricht, agreed 16 years ago, EU states signed up to "support the union's external and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity and shall comply with the union's action in this area" (Article 24 of consolidated EU treaties).

But does Lisbon address the practical problems the union encounters when trying to forge a common position on issues such as the Iraq war or closer ties with Serbia? Crucially, Lisbon does not fundamentally change the principle of unanimity that governs almost all decisions made by ministers on foreign and security issues: "Decisions under this chapter shall be taken by the European Council and the council of ministers acting unanimously" (Article 15b).

The treaty transfers only two new areas to qualified majority voting (QMV).

The first is when the European Council, made up of the leaders of the EU member states, decides unanimously (so Ireland would have to agree to waive its veto) that decisions in certain cases can be taken under QMV. Decisions with military or defence implications are specifically excluded, however, and remain governed by unanimity.

The second scenario is when the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy makes a proposal that has been specifically requested, unanimously, by the European Council. In this case QMV applies, although member states still retain the right to refer the issue back to the European Council if "vital and stated reasons of national policy" are threatened.

This failure to revamp decision-making in the foreign policy area under Lisbon is a big disappointment for federalists.

"Lisbon does not make any significant changes in the way the system will work: a pre-eminently intergovernmental decision-making process and unanimous voting will continue almost as before," says Dr Laurent Pech, author of The European Union and its Constitution. From the Treaty of Rome to the Lisbon Treaty.

"This conservatism has a price: it will prevent the EU from becoming genuinely effective, with the probable perspective of seeing European citizens disappointed, once again, with their collective impotence when faced with the next Srebrenica."

But Lisbon does introduce three potentially important changes: the creation of two new jobs that will play a fundamental role in the formulation and presentation of the EU's foreign policy, and a new European external action force to implement policy.

The new post of president of the European Council should introduce more continuity to the council's international representation by providing a single point of contact for other world leaders: former Russian president Vladimir Putin met 16 different EU council presidents at summits - hardly a recipe for continuity.

Lisbon also beefs up the existing role of the union's foreign policy supremo, currently Javier Solana, the "high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy", by giving the incumbent a seat on the commission on top of his existing role in the council of ministers.

By "wearing two hats", the high representative will better be able to co-ordinate the EU's international policies by drawing on the civilian capabilities under the control of the commission and the military and crisis management forces under the jurisdiction of the council, say Lisbon advocates.

The high representative will also be able to present the union's common position on foreign policy issues (if one exists) to the UN Security Council.

He/she will also manage a new European external action force, composed of diplomats seconded from states and officials from the council and the commission.

Treaty opponents, such as the National Platform EU Research and Information Centre's Anthony Coughlan, say these innovations represent a decisive shift that will transform the EU into a world power capable of conducting its own independent foreign policy.

But in the absence of a major change in the decision-making mechanism at the council of ministers the No campaign's fears are likely to be unfounded. The retention of national vetoes in the field of foreign affairs means that EU states are much more likely to continue to pursue their own agendas, making it difficult to find agreement on common positions.

Whether Lisbon generates the type of coherence in foreign policy that its framers and advocates believe remains to be proven.

The potential for rivalry between an activist council president and the high representative is real, while the exact make-up and mandate for the external action service has still to be decided.

The changes to the position of high representative are welcome. One practical benefit would be better co-ordination between the EU's development aid and peacekeeping arms for overseas missions. It should also provide a single EU contact for foreign affairs.

Currently three such points of contact exist: the high representative Javier Solana, the prime minister representing the six-month rotating EU presidency, and the commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

This would also be replicated at the EU's network of external representations overseas, where different people often represent the commission and council, which can cause confusion for the host country.

A pilot project to make some external representations "double-hatted" is already under way.

Erwin Fouere, the Irish-born EU ambassador to Macedonia, was the first EU ambassador installed on a "double-hatted" basis, representing council and commission.

"This has resulted in greater coherence between the different EU actors on the ground and helped the national authorities by making it easier for them by having a single point of contact for all EU affairs," Mr Fouere says.