The EU needs a new way of working

Mikaela Gavas / Sep 2014

European Commission President-designate, Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: European Union 2014

As the European Parliament resumes this week and the new president of the commission, Jean Claude Juncker, takes on the task of forming a cabinet, struggling to balance member states' interests, political affiliations and the post of foreign minister (the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) will be at the forefront of the selection process. Every five years when a new EU leadership team takes up office the opportunity for further reform presents itself. I hope President Juncker does not let this important opportunity pass.

Reform has long dominated the agenda of the EU. The list of innovations that emerged from the 2007 Lisbon Treaty are extensive and unrivalled. These included the establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS), as well as a highly visible foreign minister who is not a member of government.

The real problem, however, is that existing ways of working and organising EU external affairs have failed to address the multiple global problems facing the EU, and the world. Europe needs the right people in the new posts. Crucially, however, it also needs the right approach and ambition about the potential of working as one.

The sheer number of commissioners and the autonomous management of individual portfolios has led to little joined-up work and an embedded enclave mentality focused on protecting turf rather than genuinely working towards a common purpose. Furthermore, unclear responsibility and double structures have undermined not only the EU’s internal capacity to act coherently, but also its external profile and representation. The ‘college’ of 28 Commissioners of equal status – each responsible for a specific policy – has constrained joined-up thinking and action, and weakened leadership.

The next High Representative will inherit an agenda with a host of thorny topics, from Ukraine to Syria to Iraq. Beyond these immediate crises, there is the development agenda that is today less about aid and the very poorest countries, and more about all countries and their citizens tackling shared problems of sustainable development. It is an agenda that comprises a multitude of global problems that threaten our wellbeing and prosperity, from global economic imbalances, to climate change to intractable conflict and insecurity.

 This understanding of the scope of international development requires new ways of working and a new commitment to joint action and problem-solving across traditional boundaries. As such, there have been wide ranging calls for this role to be taken up by a bold leader, political entrepreneur, and charismatic dealmaker. Without a real step-change in the way the EU does business and organises itself, the EU will continue to tread water in international seas.

I believe the EEAS, as the EU’s foreign ministry, should be assigned a much greater policy-focused role allowing it to assume a key strategic policy synthesis and coordinating function to manage the global policy agenda. The EEAS also needs a High Representative responsible for overseeing and coordinating all EU external action, this includes development, humanitarian aid, trade, enlargement and neighbourhood policy, and climate action.

Without a radical change in ways of working, by the end of the new leadership team’s term, the EU will no longer be the world’s largest trader and investor. It will no longer be a global leader of climate change policy, not at the international negotiation table or at the cutting edge of implementation at home. Its approach to conflict and fragility will be a mixture of wishful thinking, short-termism, and amnesia on past lessons, interspersed with ill thought-out political firefighting. Its impact on governance and human rights will be limited. And its development and humanitarian aid will do little more than pick up the pieces.

The risks of ‘business as usual’ are extraordinary.

Mikaela Gavas

Mikaela Gavas

September 2014

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