New Diplomatic Corps Can Transform the European Union

The dramatic events of 2011 — natural disasters, revolutions, civil wars, and economic crises — have tested every institution of the relatively young European Union. As the world’s biggest donor bloc, the EU has been called on to lend its support both after catastrophes and to inspire quests for reform.

Meanwhile, the EU has been struggling to keep the promise of creating a viable economic future to its own citizens. Many analysts have hinged on the success of the theoretical project of the EU on its economic prosperity; the EU remains a viable project if its member states’ financial setbacks are resolved.

But the EU’s deepest mandate is not limited to defining unified fiscal policy. Rather, the EU is an ongoing experiment in state-building for a higher ethical purpose. The substance of the EU’s foreign policy — its relationship with its neighbors at the edges of, and beyond, the contested borders of Europe (the definition of which is itself a deeply complex topic) — is critical to its continued existence as an alternative to devastating forms of nationalism.

The new EU External Action Service (EAS), the EU’s version of a diplomatic corps led by Catherine Ashton is not only potentially the EU’s most ambitious project to date, but it is also critical to ensuring that the EU is able to project the moral power that it was founded on. The EAS was created by the Treaty of Lisbon, which aimed to unify and build efficiency into the EU constitution and entered into effect in December 2010. The EAS was partially intended to provide the world and Europeans alike with a united foreign policy voice in international crises and to coordinate the actions of the 27 EU foreign ministers. It was also formed to help the EU leverage its soft power more efficiently. The European Commission will still vote on security and defense decisions, but the EAS will have some intelligence capabilities.

By centralizing EU economic development, trade policy, and representatives to other nations and international organizations, the EAS both complicates and helps to fulfill the EU’s mission. Beyond the challenges of transferring responsibilities in an enormous institution, the EAS and especially High Representative Ashton, must find a way to add a strong voice to the already crowded scene of foreign policy heavyweights. President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, for example, seems to have his own foreign policy objectives.

The EAS still needs to find an equilibrium within the giant EU system as it works to share power with the European Parliament and the European Commission. The EAS must also work against charges that it will create bureaucratic waste and duplication of work. And perhaps most significantly, the EAS will need to define the EU interests that its global staff will defend and promote vis-à-vis those of the foreign ministries of each member state.

If the EU is to fulfill its moral mandate, it must resolve the tension created by the gap between member states’ and EU positions on critical and timely issues, such as ongoing state sponsored violence in Syria and the power vacuum in Libya. The EU is not simply a massive economy, it is also an experiment in how far pluralistic human communities can go in tying individual futures together and hoping for a better outcome. While it is still working out organizational kinks, the EAS has a chance to bring an ethical coherence to the EU’s relationships with its neighbors.

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