When the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, many observers anticipated the newly established High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, together with the European External Action Service, might facilitate greater unity and coherence in EU foreign policy. Drawing on evidence from the EU’s role in the Middle East Peace Process, Federica Bicchi and Lisbeth Aggestam illustrate that the reality has been far more complex. EU foreign policy governance is now increasingly driven by cooperation among informal groups of like-minded governments and cross-loading among member states outside of the EU’s formal structures.

Ten years after the Lisbon Treaty, we can safely conclude that the EU foreign policy system did not turn out as expected. The creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and of the High Representative was meant to unleash new synergies, boost coherence and lead member states towards speaking with a single voice in foreign affairs, a nearly 50 years long aspiration. Reality has proved more complex – and more interesting too. Post-Lisbon, new and distinctive patterns of interaction in foreign affairs among EU member states have become more prominent. Our analytical tools need to follow suit.

One of the most striking trends is member states’ tendency to work in smaller, informal groupings, often referred to as ‘the like-minded’ (and people in the know understand who is in and who is out, with some general patterns, but highly dependent on the topic too). These are informal ad hoc coalitions of self-selected, able and willing member states. They are an example of ‘soft alliance’ with no formal contract, no enforcing mechanisms, no decision-making procedure, often without even a formal agenda.

But they do work, through mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, knowledge exchange and coordination. These networks in the EU have been analysed before, and so has informality in the EU, but their importance has grown, be it in gender and development or migration. Interactions of like-minded countries take place at all levels, in all forms. While part of it is targeted to influence the EU, this is no longer the primary goal. Seen from this perspective, the EU is increasingly becoming one frame for member states’ foreign policy coordination among many, rather than its origin and ultimate goal – and the EEAS runs the risk of becoming redundant.

As analysts of EU foreign policy governance, this shift challenges much of our understandings. Europeanisation has been scrutinised mostly in its vertical forms of up- and down-loading, through which member states aim to project their preference onto the EU level or adapt their national policies to inputs coming from the EU level. More attention should go instead to member states’ national foreign policies and to horizontal and informal practices of cross-loading, which aim to capture member states’ interactions and mutual influence independent of mediation by EU actors. While two decades ago it was possible to argue that member states were conducting ‘all but the most limited foreign policy objectives inside an EU context’, the current context shows that member states are, at the very least, ‘still clearly keen to protect their autonomy and capacity to act on a national basis’. And they act more and more through smaller, informal groupings.

An exemplary illustration of this trend is to be found in interactions among member states on the so-called Middle East Peace Process (MEPP). Member states’ positioning on this topic has varied across time. From very wide differences in the early 1970s, member states converged substantially, on a position loosely defined as ‘differentiation policy’, only to become polarised from 2014 onwards and coalesce around three different groups of like-minded countries, one often identified as more pro-Palestinian, one as more pro-Israeli and one positioned roughly in the middle.

These categorisations are obviously simplifications. The groupings reflect profound differences over the MEPP and Europe’s role, rather than ‘pro-this’ positions. Moreover, less distance exists on certain topics (such as settlements) rather than others (such the US role in future negotiations). As trust and consensus among the EU28 have declined, informal, horizontal diplomatic relations within groups have intensified. Informal meetings have proliferated, to coordinate positions and to put pressure on the HR/VP to respond to a crisis or to issue/not issue a statement.

Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, speaking at a press conference during the International Conference on the Middle East in Paris in 2016, Credit: EEAS (CC BY-NC 2.0)

What role can the EEAS play, in this context? The options look at first grim. Member states do not share the EEAS’ view that it should lead by proposing initiatives. Moreover, the power of the chair is much limited when there is no consensus, even on putting the issue on the agenda. On the MEPP, disagreements and obtrusive behaviour (often, but not always, led by Hungary) has made it extremely difficult to discuss internal political analyses, such as the yearly Report on East Jerusalem. The 2018 one has yet to make it to the EU agenda.

Moreover, since June 2016 no declaration has been issued by the Foreign Affairs Council. Some like-minded countries have been weary of proposing such a thing, in fear that the outcome might end up unravelling the existing acquis on the MEPP (and indeed, the statement by the High Representative on Gaza expressed condolences only to the Israeli people). In a recent development, a declaration ‘at 27’ was issued at the UN Security Council, which dropped Hungary from the list of supporting countries, in the face of a last minute and unjustified veto. But declarations issued outside Brussels do not bear the same consequences in terms of the EU’s acquis.

Tellingly, somebody in the EEAS has decided to play the informal game, and for people interested in EU foreign policy governance, this is another trend to watch, together with like-minding and cross-loading. The current EUSR for the MEPP, Susanna Terstal, has organised her own informal groupings. The meetings, set in a few member states’ capitals, mixed countries belonging to different like-minded groups and took place at the level of Directors General of Middle East divisions, thus higher up in the hierarchy than the Brussels-based Maghreb-Machrek (MaMa) Working Group of the EU Council. The purpose of the exercise has been to identify key points on which to base the EU response to the ‘peace plan’ the Trump administration is due to announce, after the Israeli elections of September 17, 2019.

Can the EUSR’s efforts bring back the initiative to the EEAS and the EU more generally? Will like-minded countries act through the EU? Can the EU have a united response to the ‘deal of the century’? There is an echo of the path adopted for the EU General Strategy, back in 2016, when a relative outsider to the EEAS hierarchy, Nathalie Tocci, was given the task to consult with member states but also firmly hold the pen in writing the document’s first complete draft. And member states supported it.

This time, too, the stakes are very high. Even if the ‘peace plan’ is moot or dead on arrival, facts on the ground are moving fast. From the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority due to lack of funding to the potentially most far-right government in the history of Israel, the relevance of Europe to international politics is certainly at stake. As the next HR is unlikely to be in place before the Autumn, Europe’s capacity to be united and say something meaningful will profoundly affect Mogherini’s legacy, whether she wants it or not (and assessments of her tenure have already started).

For us observers, as the EU seems to shift from a single community of practice to ad hoc groupings, we need to sharpen our theoretical tools to capture the change and avoid the trap of just talking about ‘de-Europeanisation.’ Like-minded groups and cross-loading among member states outside EU formal structures are trends that are going to persist. Both member states and the EEAS are adapting to the new reality, and so should we.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying article in the Journal of Common Market Studies

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Federica Bicchi – LSE / EUI
Federica Bicchi is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Part-time Professor at the European University Institute.

Lisbeth Aggestam – University of Gothenburg
Lisbeth Aggestam is an Associate Professor in Political Science in the Department of Political Science and Centre for European Research at the University of Gothenburg.

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