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The role of the incoming European Union High Representative as a strategic coordinator

In 2015 a substantially new leadership in the European Union (EU) will have to respond to many acute external crises at the same time. Lars-Erik Lundin argues that the incoming EU High Representative should take on the role of a strategic coordinator in dealing with these crises.

One consistent element in the many reports on the European External Action Service (EEAS)—as shown by recommendations put forward by the EEAS itself, European Union (EU) member states (both individually and in the Council), the European Parliament, numerous think tanks and scholars and most recently the EU court of auditors—is the need for the EU’s High Representative to reform the EEAS and propose strategic goals for the way ahead.

However, first and foremost, the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP) needs to make eminently clear to his or her constituents that the role requires enhanced multitasking. This is due to the fact that the EU faces multiple crises.

Furthermore, the unfortunate truth is that the HR/VP cannot deploy to the front all the time. There are crucial challenges in the Belgrade–Pristina negotiations and Iran, where Lady Ashton is currently carrying out very important work. However, Ukraine, the Middle East and other hotspots certainly also require enhanced and sustained attention at the highest level.   

Delegating to EU special representatives in their present format—as senior officials below the political level—or to trusted collaborators is not enough.  Many potential or actual crises require shuttle diplomacy at the highest level. In the absence of strategic and continuous attention to all major issues on the EU level, individual EU states will take over. The preeminent role of Germany in the last years illustrates how the position of leading member states could come to be seen as representative of the EU as a whole.

A series of comprehensive approaches are needed in order to manage existing crises and prevent new crises from emerging. In order for this to work, the High Representative needs to seek help not just from the European Commission but also from member states and like-minded countries, from civil society and from international organizations.

Real-time attention to opportunities to do good requires perspective, and sometimes also the time to form judgments based on critical examination of evidence—what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘slow thinking’.

The truth is, therefore, that the EU leaders need to finally accept that the HR/VP has to be able to entrust major negotiating tasks to other high-level personalities working on his or her behalf, with full support from the entire EU institutional machinery.

In so doing, the criterion must be actual qualifications for the task, not formal position. There are many eminent personalities who can help, starting with Ashton herself: why not ask her to continue her excellent work on Iran? Why not ask Javier Solana to engage on key Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations, or Lord Patten to work on Bosnia? The list of potential contributors could be greatly expanded.

Whether the High Representative to be nominated is an experienced hand or not, he or she needs to ‘cut the Gordian knot’ in the very first presentations to the European Council and to the European Parliament. First, he or she should state that current crises require the same type of creative thinking as characterized the EU’s handling of the global financial and economic crisis.

Second, the EU High Representative needs to declare an intention to nominate special representatives at the highest level without appointment procedures, beyond an informal discussion in the European Council. Third, such special representatives need to be able to draw on resources and expertise in the external action service, and in the Commission. A close coalition with the President of the Commission will therefore be essential.

Perhaps the title of High Representative has led to the wrong expectations. The main task may not be representation but, instead, coordination.