Under the new Lisbon Treaty the European Union will have a genuine foreign policy chief and a full-fledged foreign service. It is expected that the Union’s foreign policy will be better coordinated and there are high hopes that the Union will finally able to speak with one voice at the international level. The new High Representative, Catherine Ashton, presented her agenda and priorities at the Parliament’s public hearing last week.
The new Lisbon treaty came into force on the 1st of December and introduced two new top posts, the permanent President of the EU Council to chair EU summit meetings, and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs. The European Heads of state and government appointed at a summit on 19 November the Belgian Herman Van Rompuy as EU president and the British Catherine Ashton as High Representative. The Lisbon Treaty will reform the decision-making apparatus of the EU institutions, making the functioning of the 27-member Union more efficient and democratic. With the scrapping of the pillar division the Community and the European Union are now unified which equips the Union with legal personality to act under international law and within international organisations. All foreign policy actions will be coordinated at the meetings of foreign ministers under a single permanent chair.
The new High Representative for Foreign Affairs will lead the monthly meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and be also the Vice-President of the European Commission. Catherine Ashton, who has taken the post from Javier Solana, will coordinate all parts of the Union’s external action. Ashton was the former European Commissioner for Trade and could convince in her role with accurate decisions and tough negotiating skills. However, the appointment of Ashton as High Representative came surprising as she has little experience in foreign affairs what have triggered controversies throughout Europe.
Baroness Ashton’s first important tasks will be the establishment of a new EU foreign service, the European External Action Service (EEAS). The EEAS is one of the key innovations which the Lisbon Treaty foresees to carry out a common EU foreign policy. Around 500 to 700 officials will work under the leadership of Ashton which will be composed from staff of the Commission, the General Secretariat of the Council and the national government administrations of the Member States. The creation of the European External Action Service is according to Ashton an “opportunity to build something that brings together all the elements of our engagement – political, economic and military – to implement one coherent strategy”
The neighbourhood and especially the Mediterranean region will be one of the top priorities for Ashton. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy stresses the importance of the Mediterranean in the public hearing by stating that “we as EU have primary responsibility for our neighbourhood” and “there are deep historical ties and common interests that bind us, as well as common problems including illegal migration. We need to take forward the work started under the Union for the Mediterranean.”
Additionally, Ashton put the Middle East the Israeli-Palestinian conflict high on the EU agenda. In early February she is expected to travel to the region to push for a reinvigoration of peace talks and resume talks with a fixed timeframe. Ashton will keep pressure on Israel to halt settlement building and urge Palestinians back to negotiations which have been suspended for a year. Ashton wants to work together with the Middle East Quartet and coordinate a common effective strategy with the United States. According to Ashton the EU needs to be active and operational “both on the global issues, where Europe is expected to play its full role, and in our immediate neighbourhood, where we are expected to take the lead”.
Baroness Ashton will not probably lead the EU to a new era of common European diplomacy. The new institutional settings provided by the Lisbon Treaty will not create a genuine EU foreign minister who has the final voice in all European foreign affairs. Decision in foreign policies will still be the result of coordination between the Member States and will be taken by unanimity. However, if Catherine Ashton seizes the opportunity she can help that the EU have a serious debate on its foreign policy goals in order to find a stronger and more coherent voice on the world stage..
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