Strains are showing in the EU’s new foreign policy structures

Are they just teething problems?  Or is something more serious at stake?  One way or another, the first signs are emerging that the European Union’s new foreign policy structures, established under the Lisbon treaty that came into force last month, are capable of producing just as much discord and disharmony as the old arrangements.

Let’s take the EU’s response to the Haiti earthquake.  Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, convened an emergency meeting on January 18 at which the 27-nation bloc quickly and efficiently agreed a generous aid package for Haiti worth over 400 million euros.  At a news conference after the meeting, she was asked if she would be visiting Haiti and, if not, why not.  She replied that she wouldn’t be going, because the United Nations had requested her and other foreign dignitaries to stay away in order not to disrupt the emergency aid effort.  However, Karel De Gucht, the EU’s outgoing humanitarian aid commissioner, would travel to Haiti.  A perfectly sensible response.

A few days later, the sleuth-like French blogger Jean Quatremer reported that Michel Barnier, France’s nominee for the next European Commission, had criticised Ashton in a briefing for French reporters for not visiting Haiti.  When he was France’s foreign minister and the Asian tsunami had struck in 2004, he had gone straight to the devastated region, Barnier recalled.

Well, as we all know, the lives of millions of catastrophe-hit Asians returned instantly to normal as soon as they caught sight of Barnier’s distinguished features on their shores.  On this occasion, however, Barnier felt obliged to issue a curious-sounding statement last Friday in which he said he had meant no disrespect for Ashton but Europe’s foreign and defence policy was “an area of work I have always been interested in”.  He is, by the way, the commissioner-designate for the EU’s internal market, not the commissioner-designate for the internal market and other areas of work he’s interested in.

What this episode reveals is that Ashton really has her work cut out to win the respect of some of her European peers.  They know perfectly well that she was appointed EU foreign policy high representative almost by accident last November and that she lacks experience in the field.  Barnier is not the only one sneering at her or trying to pull attention away from her.  Another is Miguel Ángel Moratinos, foreign minister of Spain, which holds the EU’s rotating six-month presidency.  Under the Lisbon treaty, foreign affairs are supposed to come strictly under Ashton’s authority, but Moratinos is waving Spain’s flag at every opportunity, making sure that Spain is attending or even running as many meetings as possible.

To non-European outsiders, this looks chaotic and amateurish.  British anti-Europeans are having a field day.  Someone has to restore order fast.  Unfortunately, it won’t be Ashton – at least in the short term – because she still has only a threadbare staff working for her.  The call for discipline must come from none other than José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, and – most important of all – Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the leaders of Britain, Germany and France.

Otherwise the EU’s image on the world stage, which took a hammering at December’s Copenhagen UN climate change conference, will slip even further.