The European Parliament wants a genuinely European foreign policy

Published in EUobsever 31.5.

The existence of the European Union is justified by its ability to defend its member states’ values in a constantly more intermingling world. [:]

But when it comes to fundamental issues, member states are often divided. Examples include the recognition of Kosovo’s independence or EU policy towards Russia. The European External Action Service’s (EEAS) task is to establish clearer and more coherent structures within the relationship between the EU and third countries.
Now is the time to influence the founding of the EU foreign service. Its structures ought to be able to support the achievement of the goals set out in the Treaty of Lisbon, regarding all its foreign political actions. Instead of uttering empty words and pursuing interests in trade policy, the focus should be on: peace, global sustainability, reduction of poverty, abiding by the principles of the rule of law and the safeguarding of human rights.

The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, presented her proposal for the EEAS on 25 March. On 26 April, the foreign ministers agreed on their own stance – one that widely accords with Mrs Ashton’s proposal. For the time being, the two parties are negotiating the matter with the European Parliament.

Loosening member states’ grip

Officially, the Parliament doesn’t have any power over the founding of the European foreign service. The Council merely has to consult the Parliament on the decision. However, the Parliament does have real power over financial and staff rules as well as budgetary decisions, a power it is prepared to use. It is the Parliament that is bringing openness into the decision making and demanding clear justification for the proposals.

The Parliament and the Council have many common goals. They want to avoid overlapping work and to make sure the foreign service’s staff will be highly qualified and equally treated. However, there still are disputes. According to the Parliament, the foreign service should be close to the Commission in order to represent common European views so that the differing views of the member states won’t interfere with a common foreign policy. The High Representative shall also report on her actions not only to the Council but also to the Parliament because she is Vice-President of the Commission.

In the Council, the large member states in particular don’t want to lessen their grip on a foreign policy which serves their interests. Hopefully, the dispute will end in a compromise that will strengthen common European interests in foreign policy matters.

The Council has bowed to Parliament’s demand that the most important special representatives as well as ambassadors will be heard by the Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs before their departure to the field. However, this will happen only after they have been nominated by the Council. The Parliament’s aim is to prevent unqualified or unsuitable persons from being nominated as ambassadors.

The Treaty of Lisbon empowers the Parliament to accept or reject international treaties which have already been negotiated by the EU. Considering international treaties, it demands guarantees that it will already be heard in the drafting stage. Recently, it rejected the new SWIFT agreement, which had been negotiated by the Commission and Council without the Parliament’s contribution.

The agreement would have allowed the US security authorities to have access to bank transfer data of the Europeans. Even a phone call by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to the President of the European Parliament didn’t change the matter. The Commission’s new negotiating mandate takes into account almost all of the Parliament’s matters of concern regarding the SWIFT agreement.

The controversy over development policy

One of the most controversial issues has been development policy. How is decision making about developmental issues and responsibility for them to be shared between the EEAS and the Commission? Who is going to make decisions about the development cooperation’s financing instruments: the Commissioner for Development or the foreign service?

People working in the development field emphasise the fact that the goal of reducing poverty should not be subordinated to other interests in foreign policy. Therefore, the Commissioner for Development must have the last word on these issues.

The Parliament has suggested there be a coordinating organ ensuring coherence in common foreign policy. The members of this organ would be the High Representative as well as the Commissioners for Development, Humanitarian Aid and European Neighbourhood Policy. This seems to be a feasible solution.

It is my task to supervise the implementation of the human rights perspective in all EU foreign policy. Strong structures at a high level are needed for this. I have received commitments from Mrs Ashton, but these are not visible in her proposal for the EEAS. Therefore the Parliament is demanding a separate human rights department as well as specified persons in charge of human rights matters for every EU embassy.

In addition to human rights, the foreign political actions have to take into account gender perspective – i.e. the influence of gender upon decision making. Only by systematic training will the foreign policy be modernised to meet these demands. For this task, a European academy for foreign policy will be needed as well as a research institute.

Many people associate foreign policy with endless wars. EU member states want to integrate the crisis management structures which were set up during the last years into the new foreign service almost unaltered. The Parliament wants to stress that conflict prevention, peace building and other civilian action have to be included into the new structures.

Recently, there has been concern about the fact that Mrs Ashton has mainstreamed human rights and peace so well that these are not even mentioned in the proposal for the foreign service’s structures. Therefore, it is imperative that the European Parliament and civil society influence the creation of the foreign service. There is now a historical chance to achieve a foreign service that meets the challenges of today’s world and is built upon transparency and accountability.

The writer is a Finnish MEP and chairperson of the Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights

The article has been also published in the publication Horisontin takana of SaferGlobe: