The European Union's diplomatic service was launched a year ago this week, in chaos and confusion. More than 1,500 officials were transferred en bloc from the European Commission, the secretariat of the Council of Ministers and from EU delegations abroad, but when they came back to their desks after the holidays many of them had no idea who their manager was or what they were supposed to be doing. Some of the early problems have since eased, but others have been left to fester. Demoralised staff have been forced to accept organisational chaos as a condition of life in the European External Action Service (EEAS).
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief and political master of the EEAS, is directly responsible for this dismal state of affairs. A year ago, some people inside and outside the EEAS harboured hopes that Ashton, who had practically no foreign policy experience, would grow into her role. Those hopes have withered; her leadership is as erratic, and her authority as lacking, as it was a year ago. Officials and diplomats from inside and outside the EU have accepted that her flaws will hamper the EU's foreign policy for as long as she is in office.
Ashton's biggest flaw, bigger than her lack of diplomatic experience, is an inability to trust people and let them get on with their jobs. She micromanages processes that she should delegate, while entire policy areas – notably defence and security – are left on autopilot because of her lack of interest. The only people who appear happy with Ashton are the Americans. Because Ashton has forged a strong personal relationship with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, she gets the EEAS to deliver on issues that are important to American interests, such as Iran. This is a strange way to run an organisation that is supposed to work on a global scale, with its 137 delegations abroad, across a vast range of issues.
Exasperated by this dire state of affairs, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and eight other member states last month wrote to offer advice to Ashton on how to run the service of which she is the political master. The EEAS, they wrote, must improve co-ordination with the Commission and the sharing of information with the member states; the EU's ambassadors abroad should be involved in policymaking in Brussels; and the monthly sessions of national foreign ministers need to be better prepared.
Ashton is not solely or wholly responsibly for all of these problems. The Commission, for example, has been wary of the EEAS from the outset, which has hampered co-ordination. But Ashton is a member of the college of commissioners. The point of giving her a dual role was to resolve the institutional conflicts. Her lack of authority has turned a nuisance into a serious handicap. Organisational and personal issues have affected policy.
“Until now, the EEAS has not made much of a difference,” says Jan Wouters, a professor of international law and EU studies at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. “I would have expected more – and more comprehensive – policy outputs from the EEAS. In many areas there is no policy guidance at all. The overall impression is that, even after a year, the EEAS is still not at full speed and still not working according to expectations.” Several officials agreed with this assessment.
Over the course of the past year, examples of the EEAS's incoherence have accumulated. Winning speaking rights for the EU at the United Nations, which was touted as a major diplomatic victory, provoked a fierce backlash from poorer nations that could, with proper diplomacy, have been mitigated. The EU's delegations abroad are in disarray, with the Commission frequently bypassing the ambassadors, the heads of delegation, to issue direct instructions to delegation staff. Ambassadors are overloaded with administrative tasks because there is no system to delegate their financial authority to deputies.
Nor has the EEAS provided intellectual leadership. Ashton's chief initiative in response to the popular unrest that swept across the Arab world and toppled four dictators last year was a bizarre plan to send EU soldiers to Libya to undertake unspecified humanitarian tasks. The mission never took off: Ashton had handed the activation key to the humanitarian office of the United Nations, a body whose resistance to military support is well known.
Debilitated by the deep divisions between France and the UK on one side and Germany on the other over military engagement in Libya, the EU wanted to help – but did not know how to do so. Ashton's insistence on “deep democracy” – the idea that democracy takes time to take root and is bound up with economic and social development – was a long way short of profound. As a policy, it was a slap in the face of the courageous people who were busy overthrowing despotic regimes.
I wrote here a year ago that the EEAS would be judged not by its performance at launch but by the state of the EU's foreign and security policy after a year or two. The new service is still failing.
Among all the design flaws that have held back the EEAS, by far the biggest has been to put Ashton in charge of it.