Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mythbusters II

Continuing our series on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office "mythbuster" document on the new constitutional reform treaty, we look today at the second of the "myths". This concerns the "EU Foreign Minister", the "straw man" assertion being that he "will control Britain's foreign policy".
In rebuttal, the FCO maintains:

No. The proposed High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will report to the Member States on foreign policy – i.e., the 27 national Foreign Ministers in the Foreign Affairs Council and the 27 national leaders at the European Council.

The post will bring clarity to the EU’s existing external actions by combining the roles of the current EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (Javier Solana) and the Commissioner for External Relations (Benita Ferrero-Waldner). This is intended to avoid wasteful institutional wrangling and enable the EU to act effectively at the international level.

As is the case now, it will be the Member States, acting by unanimity, who set the EU's common foreign and security policy (CFSP) objectives. And it will be the Member States who task the High Representative to take forward activity under the CFSP. Where we don't agree we can still act independently.
As far as it goes, the core of this response is true enough but, as always, the devil is in the detail – and much of the detail is missing.

One of the more important details missing is that, under the existing arrangements, the foreign policy of the Union is conducted by the rotating presidency – usually jointly by the head of government and the foreign minister.

There is also provision for action by the "troika", the current, preceding and successor member states acting together and, in some circumstances, an ad-hoc group such as the EU-3 of Germany, France and the UK which carried out the negotiations with Iran.

This can be a mixed blessing as some member states are overly enthusiastic about pursuing the EU agenda but the point is that, currently, the foreign policy is under the direct control of member states. Under the new treaty, it is still controlled by the member states, but at one step removed.

As to the High Representative being required to "report" to the member states, this is only in a manner of speaking. This implies a subordinate position, which is not reflected in the treaty. He actually presides over the Foreign Affairs Council – the most powerful committee of the Council of Ministers - taking the place of the foreign minister representing the rotating presidency. Not only does this effectively sideline the member states, it puts the High Representative in the dominant position.

Furthermore, the new constitutional reform treaty, Article 9b - which sets out the composition of the European Council - also allows for the High Representative to "take part in the work" of the European Council. Thus, the High Representative has a seat at the table with the heads of states and governments of the EU, effectively on equal terms with them.

Additionally – and again not mentioned by the FCO - the High Representative becomes a vice president of the Commission, taking the place of the commissioner for external relations and, with it, his considerable budget.

The implications his chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee, his membership of the European Council and of the commission are considerable. The post spans three of the most powerful institutions in the Union, and gives the holder considerable individual power, not afforded to any of the heads of government of the member states or any of the ministers.

More specifically, it gives the High Representative a significant degree of autonomy, in the context of the old saw: "he who is responsible to two masters is responsible to none". A skilled post-holder can very easily play off each of the institutions against the others, between which there is already some tension.

Then within the new treaty, the extent of the post-holder's power is explicitly stated. He is charged with conducting the Union's common foreign and security policy (Article 9e) and is required to "contribute by his or her proposals to the development of that policy". And, while he is bound by a "mandate" from the Council, once given, he has considerable autonomy in its execution.

Also buried in the treaty (Point 39) is an amendment to Article 21, replacing the first paragraph. Where, in the existing treaty, the Presidency is required to consult the European Parliament "on the main aspects and choices of the common foreign and security policy …", this function is taken over by the High Representative. Once again, the member states are sidelined, as a paid apparatchik is now charged with presenting the Union's policy to the EU parliament.

Additionally, there is a subtle enhancement in the role of the parliament. When the existing treaty merely requires that the "Presidency shall consult the European Parliament", this now becomes, "shall regularly consult the European Parliament".

Bearing in mind that, in the Maastricht Treaty, the common and foreign security policy was strictly intergovernmental – and thus the parliament had no role - gradually the parliament is being upgraded as an active player in the shaping (and approval) of this policy – diluting the power of the member states.

All of this makes the High Representative a very powerful player in the shaping and execution of the Union foreign policy. As a full-time paid official of the Union, he owes his allegiance to it, and can afford much more time and energy to it than any minister of any of the member states.

However, nominally, the foreign policy is indeed still under the control of the member states, but their grip is much weakened. Collectively, these subtle but important changes in the treaty represent a significant diminution of the power and influence of the member states. To that extent, the FCO rebuttal, in playing down the extent of the transfer of power, is concealing rather than illuminating the reality.


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