Open Europe Blog

How diplomatic are diplomats when discussing a rival?

We’ve already blogged about the Government’s balance of competences report on the EU’s impact on the NHS, now time for a quick look at what was said about EU foreign policy and external aid. The EU’s External Action Service seems to have attracted some criticism:

“Critics argued that it was unclear about its role; lacked strategic focus and a policy planning division; was less dynamic than previous good rotating Council presidencies; was reactive rather than proactive; was less expert than it should be on important TFEU aspects of external action, such as climate change and energy, because relevant staff had reverted to the Commission upon the EEAS’s creation; was insufficiently joined up with the Commission on external instruments; and had low staff morale.”

But for balance it has some supporters to:

“Many thought it had played a valuable role on a number of issues, such as Iran, Burma, the Horn of Africa, and the development of a comprehensive approach combining a range of instruments”

However beyond the good job / bad job narrative the more important question is to whom are these EU diplomats ultimately responsible? The report talks about the “complex legal and institutional framework for the EU’s foreign policy”. This is a fair observation and one that makes EU diplomacy difficult to hold to account. The report is clear that the European Parliament is not the answer: “If the institutions’ performance does not improve; or if there is an undesirable shift in control away from the Member States, such as a greater role for the European Parliament; how will we alter our approach.”

If one problem is accountability the FCO
does not think MEPs are the solution

The report makes some other interesting points as well, noting that “there are now few international organisations where there is not at least some effort to forge a common EU position, and have that position, even if it only amounts to a lowest common denominator, expressed by one participant on behalf of all the Member States.”

The report also notes – correctly in our view – that “the EU lacks the capabilities and the political will to play a major military role.” The EU can never aim and should never aim to be a coherent military/diplomatic actor on the world stage. It cannot do so because it does not have the military capabilities, the wish to pay for them or more importantly the political will to act.

Moving onto the issue of external aid, the report notes that “Although policy making at the EU level is often critically important, it can sometimes result in compromise positions that do not give full effect to UK priorities or that lack impact.”

We have argued that EU aid is poorly targeted, with only 46% reaching low income countries, compared with 74% of UK aid, 58% of EU member state governments’ aid and 56% of United States aid – figures first flagged up in our 2011 report on EU external aid. This is largely a result of the large sums of the EU aid budget devoted to the EU’s neighbourhood. The UK report largely glosses over this by only focusing on EU “activities that have poverty reduction or humanitarian response as their central purpose,” implicitly reinforcing the point that many of the EU’s ‘aid’ activities do not.

At a time when public confidence in overseas development spending is faltering, it is essential that this ‘value for money’ question at the EU level is addressed.

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