The High Representative of the EU: A role that needs some change?

29 July 2021 /

6 min

The EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs and security (HR), Josep Borrell, has gained in notoriety lately – perhaps not for the best reasons. A recent trip to Moscow turned into disaster when the EU’s chief foreign representative was ridiculed by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergej Lavrov. That was one too many blunders for Borrel, who was already criticized over mistakes made in Turkey and a watered-down report on China. However, the failures of Mr. Borrell might hide a more important inadequacy of the High Representative figure. In an European Union that is becoming more prominent on the international scene, this institutional role has become rather limited to lead the European Foreign Policy.

An awkward visit to Russia

On the 5th of February, Josep Borrel was invited to pay the Russians a visit. Borrell went to Moscow to inquire whether the government was inclined to revitalise its relationship with the EU, which has been deteriorating since the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. The answer was a clear “No” especially if the EU was to continue to belabor Russia about respecting fundamental rights – according to Lavrov. Furthermore, the issue of Nalvany’s was brought up, but berated by Russia’s foreign minister. During the press conference, the Russian Foreign Minister addressed the EU as “an unreliable partner”.

Later on, he expelled three diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland for participating in a demonstration in support of Navalny. The entire experience overshadowed the effectiveness of the HR and was reprimanded by Member States and Members of the Parliament (MEPs), many calling for Borrell to resign. Putting aside the consideration about Borrell’s suitability for the role, the fact remains that the HR powers have been challenged ever since the Lisbon Treaty and the backlash from Moscow highlights this turn of events. As a matter, the Moscow trip puts into consideration the unitary representation of the HR. Josep Borell, when having to explain himself in front of the European Parliament on February 9th, addressed the distortion of the European foreign Representation to MEPs. He told the Parliament that nineteen EU countries’ delegations went to Russia before he was allowed to take the trip. He concluded his intervention by stating that when all delegations can go to Russia but not the EU’s HR, then what is the point in having one in the first place? Indeed, by bringing the unitary role of the HR into question, Member States are weakening the European Union’s external actions and its credibility in foreign affairs.

What is the role of the HR?

Josep Borrell was elected to the role of High Representative of the Union for Foreign affairs in 2019. A member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the former Spanish foreign minister and former President of the EU’s Parliament, his experience made him a clear choice to lead the EU’s common affairs and security outside of the EU block. The High Representative is one of the EU’s most important roles. He or she is the head and chair of the Foreign Affairs Council, when foreign ministers from the 27 Member States meet and decide on the EU’s external action. The High Representative is also the Vice-president of the Commission which means that he is the trait d’union between the Council of the European Union, which is the intergovernmental body of the EU, and the supranational institution, that is the Commission. More importantly, the High Representative represents the EU in the international sphere and conducts the EU’s foreign affairs that are attributed to his role.

A Young Figure

The High Representative is quite a recent figure in the history of the EU. In the Maastricht Treaty, the second pillar of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) defined Member States’ willingness to cooperate in this field while keeping a strong intergovernmental character. Indeed, it is fundamental to say that, under the second pillar, decisions were – and remain still – taken by unanimity by the Council. The Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 institutionalised the figure of the High Representative with the Spanish Javier Solana being the first to take on the role in 1999.

The Constitutional treaty of 2004 wanted to give a more important position to the HR with the intention of creating the European Minister of Foreign Affairs. Long story short, the treaty was rejected by citizens in France and the Netherlands. Heads of states found themselves to re-elaborate this treaty, reaching an agreement in Lisbon, ratified in 2009. The European Minister of Foreign Affairs was replaced by the European External Action Services, but except changing the wording, the functions remained the same. Further – more, Lisbon created a hybrid organisation outside of the Commission and the Council but with ties to both institutions through the High Representative. To that extent, the new figure gained greater independence from the Council, a higher international profile and the unitary representation of the union.

What has Lisbon changed?

Since Lisbon, the role of the HR has expanded into three directions: agenda-setting, higher international profile and unitary representation. However, the Member States did not entirely renounce control over the High Representative’s actions and final say.

First, the powers of the High Representative increased as a result of being able to act as an agenda-setter and possessing the right of initiative. These opportunities strengthened its position within the Council and allowed him to play a key role in leading the CFSP. However, on both the CFSP and the Common Security and Defense Policy, the Council remains the leader of the situation. In the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), under Title V, it is made clear how unanimity in the Council is an essential part of the process. In this sense, even though the second pillar was removed after Lisbon, its main aspects were not. Although the High Representative has acquired new tools to lead the fight, its possibilities to shape CFSP policy are restricted.

A second interesting aspect is the higher international profile of the High Representative. He was given a very important role not really codified in Treaties before. From 2009, the High Representative is in charge of representing the EU in the field of CFSP with third countries and international organisations. However, the burdensome task could not be done alone, and thus, the European External Action Service was created. The new body is composed of former Commission’s bureau – crats, Council civil servants and professional diplomats who support the High Representative in ensuring the correct representation of the Union abroad. One down side of this service is that most officials are issued by the Member States, who remain loyal to delivering their country’s interest, which limits the High Representative room of maneuver.

Finally, the unitary representation of the Union remains a topic of controversy. On the one hand, the role of the HR assures a more identifiable leadership for external countries and organisations. On the other hand, its power is limited to the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and will sometimes run into competition with the Commission and the Council.

Although Lisbon sought to create a key figure in the EU’s external affairs, it fell short of creating a real strong persona in the role. The last visit to Moscow of Josep Borrell is a prime example of this issue: a role with high potential but with hands tied by Member States.

[This article was first published in the issue 34 of the magazine]

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