Last weekend, the European Council (the heads of state or government of European Union [EU] member states) appointed Italian foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, as the next High Representative (HR) of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The holder of this post is responsible for ‘conducting the EU’s foreign policy. As was the case with the first HR, Catherine Ashton, commentators have expressed their ‘disappointment’ at Mrs Mogherini’s appointment before it was even formally announced. Certain EU member-states are reportedly concerned that she has been insufficiently tough on Russia. Additionally, Brussels-based officials have reportedly complained about her negotiating style, which is thought to reflect her lack of experience. It is believed that given recent developments in international politics (especially in Ukraine, but also in Iraq/Syria, Gaza and Libya), someone more established would have been preferable. A ‘big hitter’, the argument goes, would have made a strong HR, who would have been able to improve the functioning of the EU’s foreign policy. The perception of Mrs Mogherini’s bias in favour of Russia may prove problematic and her experience may be debatable. The idea, however, that the appointment of a different HR could have significantly increased the effectiveness of the EU’s foreign policy suggests a flawed understanding of the formidable constraints under which the HR operates.
The main problem with the EU’s foreign policy is that almost all foreign policy decisions require the agreement of all EU member-states, while at the same time EU member-states have substantial disagreements about many foreign policy issues. Some might consider the decision-making rules and EU member states’ interests as two separate issues. They might argue that more flexible decision-making rules would resolve the problem. Some have argued that the next HR should do more to ensure that EU member-states make use of the flexibility that has already been introduced, such as the opportunities to vote by qualified majority (QMV). The two issues, however, are not independent of one another. In all policy areas, the decision-making rules of the EU reflect the extent of the disagreements between EU member states. Flexible decision-making rules, such as QMV, are only introduced in policy areas, where there is substantial convergence between EU member-states.
The attempts to complete the single market in the mid-1980s are a good example of this. Shortly after the change in the French position limited the disagreements between EU member states over the completion of the single market, EU member states agreed new, more flexible decision-making rules. On issues relating to the single market, only the Commission could table proposals, EU member states in the Council voted to accept them by qualified majority and they voted to amend them by unanimity. Those rules gave the Commission more formal power to influence EU policy than it had ever had until then or has had since those rules were changed. The reason is simple: the Commission became the only actor involved in the policy-making process who could table proposals that were easier to accept (by QMV) than to modify (by unanimity). Decision-making became much more efficient. Within a few years, more progress towards the completion of the single market was achieved than during the previous three decades.
No actor involved in the making of the EU’s foreign policy has ever had this power. The HR can table proposals on foreign policy issues, but she is not the only one. So can any EU member-state. Additionally, the HR’s proposals are not easier to accept than to modify. Decisions on foreign policy issues are normally made unanimously. EU member states in the Council may vote on substantive issues by qualified majority only when they are following up on an earlier decision made unanimously. For example, they may vote on a proposal by the HR by qualified majority, only if she has tabled this proposal on the basis of a ‘specific request’ made unanimously by the European Council. Additionally, any EU member-state can prevent such a vote by qualified majority from being taken on the basis of ‘vital and stated reasons of national policy’. In such cases, the HR tries to find a solution acceptable to the member-state that prevented the vote form being taken. In other words, the HR tries to find a solution to which EU member states can agree unanimously. If the HR fails, the issue might be referred to the European Council which will, once again, make a decision unanimously. All these provisions show that the HR’s formal power is severely limited by the virtually omnipresent requirement of unanimity amongst national governments that often have substantial disagreements. Even if the European Council had appointed a more experienced HR than Mogherini, they would have had little formal power to influence the EU’s foreign policy.
It might be argued that the HR can influence the EU’s foreign policy by using their informal rather than formal powers. They might do so by acting as a ‘policy entrepreneur’, by using their information, expertise and policy ideas to table proposals that will foster consensus amongst national governments and their negotiating skills to broker an agreement. Such influence might be exercised for example in cases where an EU member-state has prevented a vote by qualified majority from being taken and the HR is trying to find a solution acceptable to it. All other things being equal, a more experienced HR would have been better able to perform this function, as more experience would probably have also meant more developed skills and expertise.
This is a valid point, but it should not be overstated. The ability to act as such an entrepreneur rests on having more information, expertise or policy ideas than other policy makers. Surely, an individual per se is highly unlikely to have more information, expertise or policy ideas than the national governments of 28 states and their diplomatic services. It is more plausible to suggest that her organisation might. This, however, does not appear to be the case with the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic service that was established in 2011 to ‘assist’ the HR in performing her duties. Research has shown that the EEAS has so far suffered from a lack of the ‘entrepreneurial thinking’ and ‘proactive attitude’ described above. In fact, national diplomats have ‘repeatedly complained’ about its capacity to perform far more basic functions, such as circulating documents in a timely fashion. While the EEAS was established relatively recently, the evidence suggests that it does not as yet have the capacity to generate the information, expertise or policy ideas that would allow the HR to act as a policy entrepreneur. Even if the European Council had appointed a more experienced HR than Mrs Mogherini, they would have had little informal power to influence the EU’s foreign policy.
There is one important exception, regarding which the appointment of someone other than Mrs Mogherini may have been beneficial for the EU’s foreign policy: EU policy towards Russia, especially over the Ukraine crisis. National governments might withhold from their EU partners information about what they really want to get out of a negotiation and how badly they want it in order to improve their bargaining position. National governments might share such information with the HR, if they believe that she will act as an ‘honest broker’ between EU member states. If national governments choose to do so, the HR will have the informational advantage that might allow her to act as a policy entrepreneur. She might be able to use this information to prepare a proposal to which all national governments will agree. As was mentioned above, certain national governments do not appear to believe that Mrs Mogherini will act as an ‘honest broker’ in negotiations over EU policy towards Russia. Consequently, they are unlikely to share such information with her, thus preventing her from acting as a policy entrepreneur. All other things being equal, if the European Council had appointed someone who is perceived as more impartial, they would have probably had more informal power to influence EU policy towards Russia than Mrs Mogherini will.
EU member states have not transferred considerable formal power to the HR because the extent of their disagreements over foreign policy issues remains considerable. Additionally, the EEAS does not as yet have the capacity to generate the information, expertise and policy ideas that might have given the HR the power to influence the EU’s foreign policy informally. The appointment of someone other than Mrs Mogherini as the next HR would have not changed any of this. The greater informal power to influence EU policy towards Russia that someone perceived as more impartial than Mrs Mogherini would have is certainly important, but it remains an exception. Additionally, this informal power of a more impartial HR would be greater than Mrs Mogherini’s only if national governments chose to withhold information from their EU partners and share it with the HR. There is no evidence that national governments systematically do so. Consequently, Mrs Mogherini’s appointment matters little for the EU’s foreign policy.
Kyriakos Moumoutzis is a Lecturer in European and International Politics at King’s College London.