Time To Get Closer To Europe’s Foreign Policy Chief

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s Vice President responsible for foreign policy.
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Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s Vice President responsible for foreign policy.
By David Jessop

News Americas, LONDON, England, Fri. Mar. 16, 2012: In the last few days it has been widely reported that Europe hopes to resume discussions with Iran on its controversial nuclear program.

The offer from Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s Vice President responsible for foreign policy, was made on behalf of China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the U.S. It emphasized the growing significance of the obscurely named European External Action Service (EEAS), the body she heads, now tasked with creating a common European foreign policy.

Launched in 2010 as one of the outcomes of Europe’s Lisbon Treaty, this supra-national foreign ministry is intended to allow the EU to speak externally with one voice. The idea is not to replace EU member states’ bilateral relations, but to deliver a more effective, visible and coherent EU foreign policy where their views coincide.

For the last months its staff have been moving into a new home after having been scattered around different buildings in Brussels. The effect, officials say, is to create a more unified approach to issues.

Within the EEAS there is a department for the Americas with a separate section for each of its regions including a group for the Caribbean. As the EEAS finds its feet, this department is likely to have a significant influence over policy towards the Caribbean and Latin America and become the body that Caribbean Governments, regional institutions, the private sector, NGOs and others will need to engage more closely in political and economic dialogue.

However, as with most significant bureaucratic change, creating a space in which to act is not proving easy. How the new body operates in regions like the Caribbean, where traditionally the relationship has been with the Directorates responsible for development and for trade has proved contentious.

Away from public view, a tense battle is being fought out in Brussels between the EEAS and the EC Directorate for Development and Cooperation (DEVCO), the body that delivers Europe’s national and regional programs in the context of the European Development Fund.

The issue is particularly acute when it comes to those regions of the world that are considered ‘developing’ as, according to the Lisbon Treaty, development should be a priority of European external affairs. What this is meant to mean is that the way in which Europe allocates and plans its external programs should be under the leadership of the EEAS and that it should shape the focus and nature of any cooperation programs.

Put another way, the Lisbon Treaty created an inherent contradiction between the EEAS, which is charged with directing Europe’s strategic objectives internationally and DEVCO which has differently defined development objectives and the money to spend.

Less acute are the potential contradictions in relation to foreign trade policy. However, Europe’s Trade Directorate has a competence that exceeds that of European Member States and can independently initiate, negotiate and deliver trade policy or Free Trade Agreements for example.

For the Caribbean the outcome, while crucial to the future EU-Cariforum relationship, is arguably a decade too late. Genuine European policy coherence would have been welcome much earlier in relation to trade policy and the sequence of decisions from the late 1990s on. These rapidly eroded existing trade and development relationships without much thought being given to the longer term consequences or to the effect on issues such as crime and security, the environment or Europe’s geo strategic objectives.

Be that as it may, how the balance of power is resolved between the EEAS and other parts of the Commission should be of concern and debate in the region.

In Brussels, a near theological exchange is underway as to how Europe should in future provide support and where. A careful reading of recent communications (policy documents) suggest that new thinking will cause the EC to move away from bilateral support for regions like the Caribbean as Europe comes to focus on newer priorities and the graduation out of development assistance of middle ranking developing economies. Other documents reflect Europe’s changing longer term strategic relationship with many parts of the world, reflect a view that Latin America and the Caribbean are one region, and the need to find ways to encourage growth through the private sector.

The litmus test will come, as the think tank, the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) recently pointed out, in relation to how Europe will focus its support in the period 2014-2020. Then, ECDPM suggest, it will become clear how the balance is to be struck between development priorities and the EU’s economic, security and migration interests.

In all of this the Caribbean needs to improve its political dialogue with the EEA to ensure its views are fully taken into account as decisions are being taken now.

Unfortunately the Caribbean’s relationship with the EEAS has been complicated by the region’s decision in 2010 at the UN General Assembly to oppose Europe having enhanced observer status. The measure, designed to enable senior EU officials to address the assembly, was objected to by the region and other developing nations concerned that the EU was seeking rights denied to other groupings. At the time the decision was deferred but subsequently approved. However, it seems aspects of the issue continue to rankle some Caribbean nations which continue to press certain aspects of the issue.

The new initiative on Iran shows that Europe remains important globally and continues to be a significant influence for stability and security.

Caribbean ministers ought therefore to consider getting to know Baroness Ashton and her senior officials better, inviting her to the region, suggesting realistic solutions to the challenges they face and where the region might fit within Europe’s new thinking.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at [email protected] Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org