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Challenges 2014: Keeping Ashton’s legacy alive – Showing leadership and coherence in EU external relations through 2014


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+++ ECDPM Challenges blog series. Post number nine +++  

2014 is a year of institutional transition but it should not be a year for silent reflection on EU external action. The current leadership has an important role to play in maintaining momentum for the EEAS Review while leaving enough space for the 2014 intake to take ownership of the ongoing EEAS change processes. With three major international agreements to be signed in 2015, the High Representative and Vice-President will also need to excel in ensuring coherence of EU external policy with regards to sustainable development goals, climate change and financing for development. 

Leaving behind an important legacy

Despite the criticism levelled over the past 3 years, Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative and Vice-President (HR/VP) of the European Commission leaves us important legacies. Firstly, an established European External Action Service with a network of 139 EU Delegations representing the EU in 163 countries and international organisations. Secondly, two major EU foreign policy successes in getting Serbia and Kosovo to normalise their relations and facilitating a historic deal to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Last but not least, the EEAS Review – a set of short term and medium term recommendations on how to strengthen the foundations of the EEAS and the role of the HR/VP.

Copyright European Union
Catherine Ashton addresses European Parliament

The short term recommendations are geared to improving the efficiency of limited resources, simplifying the administrative budget for EU Delegations, reducing the burden on Heads of Delegations and reinforcing the co-ordination of resource management between the EEAS and the Commission. Most of these recommendations can be handled internally by the EEAS (or only require setting arrangements between the EEAS, the European Commission and Member States) without amending the legal acts.

The medium term recommendations address issues that could imply larger scale organisational, institutional and legal developments. Overhauling the management and support structures for Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) operations or changing the way that responsibilities, competences and tasks are currently shared amongst political level representatives of EU external affairs (the High Representative, the Commissioners, and Foreign Ministers), and senior EEAS officials would require amending several Council Decisions, the Financial Regulations and even the Treaty of the European Union.

December Council Conclusions and predictions for 2014

The EEAS Review landed on people’s desks in July 2013, just one year before the renewal of political leadership and institutional change. In preparation for the Council Conclusions to be adopted at the end of December 2013, the Lithuanian Presidency has led four intense rounds of discussions within the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER) on the legal and institutional implications of Ashton’s proposals.

Having followed the European Parliament’s hearing on the EEAS Review on November 26th, and having spoken with a few insiders to the process, I foresee two key trends and challenges for 2014:

  • It is clear now that there is little appetite for legal change before the institutional transition takes effect in 2014.  This is not necessarily a sign that Member States lack ambition, on the contrary.  They need time to reflect on what political choices they want to make with regards EU foreign policy and the shape that the EEAS will take in the coming legislature. However, 2014 should not be a year for silent reflection.  The current leadership has an important role to play in keeping the EEAS Review on the table, while at the same time, leaving sufficient space for the new leadership to take ownership of the process, once they are appointed.
  • Member States seem unanimous on the importance of the role of Vice President, and the need for the High Representative to exert this role. Catherine Ashton has still one year to prove that she can handle her double-hat.  This means, inter alia, to convene and chair regular meetings of the Relex (External Relations) Group of Commissioners (apparently this has never occurred!), drawing on the specialist expertise within European Commission services. She should also include external relations proposals in the Commission annual work plan and contribute to the work programme of the rotating trio of presidencies.  This is not just a matter of maintaining a personal track record. Its mainly about ensuring the coherence of EU external policy in the run-up to three major international agreements, all to be signed in 2015 – a legally binding climate change agreement, the post-2015 development framework and an agreement on financing for development.

‘You’re going to reap just what you sow’

The Council comes to its conclusions on December 17th, and what is clear is that the EEAS Review is the first impetus to a long process of organisational and institutional change that will mostly unfold in 2015, once the new leadership has taken seat.  Yet, if I were to make a New Year’s wish, it would be to keep Ashton’s legacy alive throughout 2014: Member States have the responsibility to maintain a positive momentum and the highest level of ambitions possible with regards EU external action.

Alisa Herrero is Policy Officer in the Strengthening European External Action Programme at ECDPM

Photo © European Union

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European external affairsChallengesEuropean External Action Service (EEAS)European Union (EU)