Doing better on EU visibility – Lessons for the EEAS review

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      Visibility, everyone wants it, but how well are they achieving it?

      The EU is consistently criticised for low visibility on its external action, and now the European Parliament is calling for the issue to be dealt with in the on-going Review of the European External Action Service.

      This blog asks: what has actually been learned from efforts to promote EU visibility in external action?

      Surprisingly in 2010 the European Commission tasked what was formerly the Joint Evaluation Unit for External Relations to provide an answer to this very question..

      ECDPM, along with DRN, led the evaluation of the visibility of EU external action (as a declaration of interest I was on the evaluation team) that reported in 2012. Six different country studies were done, media monitoring was undertaken, thematic reviews were written of particular areas of EU external action; extending from conflict to climate change and migration, plus analysis’ of existing policies and resources, as well as raft of interviews in Brussels and beyond.

      So, what were the main messages relevant for the EEAS Review in 2013?

      Main messages relevant for EEAS Review in 2013

      One of the first conclusions of the evaluation was that while the public image of the EU is largely in line with what they intend to promote, there is a gap between the rhetoric of EU external action and the reality, which did not go unnoticed.  So, nothing earth shattering for seasoned EU watchers there. The recommendation to deal with this was, on the one hand to stop raising unrealistic expectations and on the other for the EU to communicate more on results, rather than simply inputs.

      Lowering expectations and communicating outcomes

      This will be a hard one for the EEAS to manage, but perhaps the EU needs to work towards lowering expectations of how it can solve all global problems (particularly if the Commission and member-states are not of one voice) to improve the EU’s image and visibility. Though it seems to go against the need to show results, the two are not incompatible. Therefore, perhaps changing the culture to communicate where the EU has made a contribution to an outcome, rather than the endless communication on inputs (e.g. diplomatic meetings held, particular aid promised etc.) complemented by a modest approach to noting what the EU, can actually achieve this in a rapidly changing global environment. 

      Better direction and leadership

      The second major conclusion was that visibility for EU external action lacked overall direction and leadership. This was less a direct political criticism aimed at the highest level and more an observation that the various EU institutions and services basically hadn’t been able to come up with and follow-through on a single strategy – let alone be able to do this with member-states.

      While a healthy dose of realism is needed here in terms of coordinating messages where political positions and institutional interests are not aligned, the call was for the leadership and hierarchy of the Commission, Council and EEAS to do better here.

      So progress in this area is not in the gift of the EEAS or even the HRVP alone. Indeed this gets to the heart of a problem with the EEAS review process overall. The EEAS Review cannot really be a credible process unless the positions of the member-states, Commission and Council are also assessed in light of their support or obstruction of the functioning of the new service. Yet it is unlikely that the other institutions and member-states have the appetite for that as ECDPM has previously noted.

      Partnership dimensions and global reach

      A third, often-overlooked aspect is that the EU in its external action usually works in partnership with everyone from the UN, third countries (from the United States to developing country governments), to NGOs implementing projects. There is a trade-off here and visibility needs to be shared. Yet the partnership dimension is a key added value of EU external action and modus operandi. Quite simply the sharp end of implementation of EU external action (from development assistance through to security and stabilisation) isn’t done by the EU, but instead is undertaken by the partners. It may be a negative for EU visibility, but in reality it is a positive for EU external action.

      A fourth aspect was that the EU has global reach, yet the image of the EU varies hugely in different regions of the world and by different policy communities. That means there needs to be contextual and audience adaption if EU visibility is to gain traction and a crucial role for EU Delegations.

      This is more than simply the public diplomacy projects, but also the EU Head of Delegation (and visiting EU political leaders) interacting and engaging with the media on the political issues of the day.  Here, one of the issues was a necessity for a clear political and regional strategy, which the EU visibility strategy can then align behind. This has to be a nimble political strategy on the critical issues of the day, not the clunking meta-strategies ambiguously targeted at broad goals of poverty alleviation, peace or stabilisation.

      Better use of resources not more

      Interestingly the evaluation found that the financial or human resources available for EU visibility were adequate – in the sense that there was no call for massive injection of new resources but rather a better deployment and more political direction for the ones that currently exist.  It seems at the level of EU Delegations this is where some reorganisation needs to happen.

      Finally a side finding of the evaluation was that the EU’s closet and best-informed observers were actually some of the most critical of it. Perhaps something those undertaking the EEAS Review inside the institution should take some comfort from, as they suffer the ‘slings and arrows’ of the Brussels based observers from the diplomat corps, media to think tanks. While certainly no call for complacency, things may not be as bad as this group make out.


      Andrew Sherriff is Head of Programme EU External Action. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @AndrewSherriff


      This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.


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