Europe’s chequered attempt to build a common foreign and security policy has a new face, Italy’s Federica Mogherini, but the European Union is stuck with the same old problems despite her bright start.
In her first six months as EU foreign policy chief, the 41-year-old former Italian foreign minister has tried to harness Europe’s soft power and diplomacy more effectively and initiated a review of the bloc’s outdated security strategy and of its flawed “neighborhood policy”.
She has taken a higher public profile than her media-shy predecessor, Britain’s Catherine Ashton, and is using her role as vice-president of the European Commission, which Ashton shunned, to coordinate the EU’s trade, aid and state-building resources to maximize its toolkit.
“If we put together the numbers of the EU and the member states, then we are the first heavyweight. It’s just that we don’t realize the power we have in our hands, and we don’t use it,” Mogherini said at a recent session on the EU’s changing security environment. “Just using all our potential in terms of institutions and money would be a game changer.”
“Outside Europe, people are looking at us with a certain disbelief and saying: ‘You are a big trade and economic power, and what are you doing with that?'”
Her fundamental challenge is that when push comes to shove, Europe’s main powers take matters into their own hands rather than pooling their interests, diplomacy or armed forces under an EU hat, despite their treaty commitments to do so.
For France, Germany and Britain, bilateral political and economic relationships with the world’s major powers – the United States, Russia, China and Japan – are too important and sensitive to outsource to Brussels.
While they benefit from negotiating trade deals as a 28-nation bloc, they also compete with each other for markets and influence. That makes them reluctant to be drawn into thrashing out differing national interests with EU colleagues and working to identify a common European interest.
Mogherini wants to change that. “It’s right that we need to talk about our differences,” she said.
But some long-time insiders reckon that efforts to integrate European foreign policy have gone backwards in the last five years, even as national foreign and defense budgets were cut.
“The financial crisis has resulted in the renationalization of a lot of European policies. Foreign policy is one,” said Stefan Lehne, a former senior EU and Austrian diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The notion that foreign policy can be a driver of European integration is not very plausible. I don’t think the trust is there. If things get really tough, it will be national decisions by a few big countries or coalitions of the willing,” said Lehne, who was an EU troubleshooter in the Balkans.
Mogherini acknowledges that reality and is more pragmatic than EU purists about the ways in which Europe engages in crisis management and diplomacy.
In Ukraine, it is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with French President Francois Hollande, who has mediated between Moscow and Kiev, not Mogherini or European Council President Donald Tusk.
The EU plays a supporting role in designing and building a consensus for sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and the destabilizing of eastern Ukraine. It is also trying to use its competition rules and energy policy to counter the power of dominant Russian gas supplier Gazprom.
Mogherini and her predecessors have led negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, along with three EU nations – Britain, France and Germany – at the table alongside the United States, Russia and China. But in the decisive phase, Washington and Tehran forged the key compromises in secret bilateral talks.
As tens of thousands of people flee Middle East and African wars and risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, Italy has mostly been left to rescue them from drowning with scant support from EU partners wary of a migratory pull factor.
Since a war-weary United States under President Barack Obama stepped back from military intervention in the Middle East, Europe has not filled the vacuum.
Most EU member states, except France, Britain and Poland, have severely cut military spending. Public support for foreign operations has evaporated due in part to the perceived Western failures to stabilize Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
France intervened militarily alone to stop Islamists taking over Mali and prevent the Central African Republic from descending into sectarian slaughter. It turned to the EU only afterwards for help with peace keeping and security training.
When European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently revived talk of an EU army, he sparked perplexity rather than hostility, because the idea seemed so remote from reality.
Since 2009, the EU has set up a quasi foreign ministry awkwardly named the European External Action Service (EEAS). It runs a network of diplomats around the globe and drafts policy papers for the council of EU foreign ministers, chaired by Mogherini.
But the EEAS, with 3,600 staff including seconded national diplomats, has so far struggled to add value. Like a Soviet factory, the sum total of the inputs in manpower and resources often seem to exceed the output.
Skeptics such as former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine see the whole effort as premature and naive, arguing that the EU spends too much time issuing well meaning statements rather than dealing with the hard realities of a rough world.
Furthermore, the EU has turned its back on arguably its most potent tool to shape its neighbors, rolling up the welcome mat for new members with a five-year moratorium on enlargement that some fear may be indefinite.
The EU has no shortage of crises on its borders and beyond, but despite Mogherini’s energy and communication skills, it is hard to see that she will succeed in galvanizing European governments into a more coherent foreign policy.
Paul Taylor is based in Paris, editing and writing about politics and economics in Europe and beyond. A correspondent and bureau chief for 33 years at Reuters, he worked in Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Israel, Iran. His other senior roles were Diplomatic Editor and European Affairs Editor.