How can the EU deliver an effective global strategy?

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2008/10)

6-8 November 2008 

Against the background of some unpredictable autumn weather, this conference looked at the European Union’s foreign policy performance in a challenging global environment.  Participants agreed that overall, the European Union had achieved some remarkable successes as the most effective of all regional organisations.  However, no-one denied that there were also ways of improving the EU’s global impact, not least by delivering on already-agreed policies with the tools currently available.  Effective implementation should be a priority.

A constant theme in our discussions was the interplay, sometimes the disconnect, between national and collective policy-making.  There had been substantial advances in the economic and trade fields, in competition policy, in capacity-building, aid and development and in the approach to certain international relationships, for instance with India and China.  However, national interests and objectives still dominated on the harder political issues and could all too easily trump efforts to work together.  Policy on Russia was a notable example, with Turkey and the Middle East close behind.  Speaking consistently with a single voice at multilateral institutions remained a distant ambition.  Several participants, specifically from countries outside the EU, thought that the lack of common interest was a reflection of reality, not just a problem of political will.  They could see not only that the larger member states could sometimes promote more effective action in smaller groups, but also that the smaller countries might not always be attracted by efforts to solve the world’s problems.

In the EU’s range of instruments available, defence capability mattered.  The European Security and Defence Policy, first adopted at St Malo ten years ago, still fell short of providing that capability.  Defence funding needed to increase and be spent more effectively.  The EU’s soft power capacities had been used skillfully in crises such as Kosovo, but many participants lamented the EU’s lack of strategic planning.  In the end, it was the outcome that mattered, not the method of working together.  President Sarkozy had used his position as EU Presidency well on Georgia, with the backing of  member states.  But divisions over Russian policy had affected the eventual outcome. 

A strong theme throughout the three days was that the EU should focus on implementing existing policies and use its known strengths to best effect, not try constantly to acquire new ones.  Unlike economic and trade policy, where big decisions were made at intervals, foreign policy was an accumulation of smaller moves.  There needed to be a strategic understanding of the EU’s long-term objectives, within which both collective action and member states’ initiatives could be presented as ‘European’.  The areas in which the EU’s competences gave it most purchase should be prioritised.  Successful thematic cooperation between the EU and outside partners existed in the areas of organised crime, terrorism, migration, climate change and cultural exchanges.  This was the outcome of the implementation of policies in existing treaties and proved the effectiveness of concentrating on issues to which the Union could add real value.  The level of coordination taking place in preparation for the G20 summit shortly to take place in Washington was encouraging.

Nevertheless, the harder political issues would not go away.  Policy towards Russia would naturally be viewed differently between the Baltic countries and those on the Atlantic seaboard, or between those more and those less dependent on Russian energy exports.  The methodologies of decision-taking were themselves different at national level, as between smaller and larger countries, and again at the collective level.  It was entirely normal that capitals with different priorities should take different approaches.  The import thing was to accept that the EU encompassed a range of acceptable practices. 

Many participants thought real progress could be made in certain areas:


The EU needed to develop a more efficient internal energy policy before it dealt with external factors.  Diversification of energy sources, especially for gas, was essential.  Creating common storage facilities, unbundling and building more inter-connecters for networks were also useful approaches.

Human Rights

With the UN struggling in this area, the EU’s consistent focus could be influential.  Some bilateral dialogues on human rights, for instance with China, were having a slow impact.  The EU could make better use of resources spent on human rights promotion and capacity-building expertise.


The Union’s contingency planning should be de-politicised and analyses of lessons learned from ESDP operations should be systematically shared.  Member states should offer better quality intelligence to the EU Situation Centre.  Recognising resource constraints, EU member states should develop more shared capacities, particularly in the civilian aspects of conflict-remedying such as police and justice systems.

European Neighbourhood Policy

The EU should make it clear to outside partners that the ENP was not a ‘no’ on accession.  At the same time, the policy should be used to focus much more on stronger bilateral policies with each neighbour, to be able to cooperate in a structured way without the automatic offer of membership.

There were many points in our debate which connected with enlargement policy.  There was disagreement on whether further enlargement was desirable. Some felt that a larger Union would make it increasingly difficult for the EU to develop a more effective global strategy, while others thought that having more member states would force the EU to become much more of a strategic and global player.  Decisions on Turkey and Ukraine would be especially indicative of the EU’s future direction. In the end, every member state had to make up its mind.  It was a crucial difference between enlargement and other EU policies, such as Schengen or the monetary union, that member states could not opt out of it.

An important feature of this conference was evidence of the perceptions and expectations of outside partners, especially those of the United States.  The arrival of a President Obama was both an opportunity and a test for Europe.  Participants agreed that Afghanistan would be a priority for the new Administration, which would certainly call on the European Union to do more.  At the same time, bilateral channels between the United States and particular EU member states would carry plenty of traffic, and would remain the default position if EU-wide agreement was not quickly established.  Nevertheless, there was room for the EU and the US to construct much more effective consultation mechanisms.  Experts should share analyses more regularly and work together on concrete areas of common interest, such as developing civil capacities for crisis management.  Summits and formal meetings could not carry all this essential detail.

Participants were frank in recognising that the EU’s make-up laid itself open to exploitation of divisions.  Russia was a case in point.  Also, outsiders often found it difficult to distinguish between member states and institutions and to know who had complete competency over any specific issue.  This led to a spread of approaches both to Brussels and to capitals.  Strength in communication was therefore at a premium.  The European Union could do several things to improve its image abroad. Its strategic partnerships currently had little substance. It should move away from its focus on summitry towards more tailored meetings on issues of real substance, such as trade, climate change and energy.  In addition, it should resist political expediency and apply its rules equally.  For instance, competition policy should be applied to Gazprom in the same way as to Microsoft.

Several participants said that it was important not to let foreign policy difficulties or failures reflect on the EU project as a whole.  Gradually, Europe was building experience and flexibility.  The handling of the financial crisis - a real and continuing test for the EU collectively and for the member states with their separate electorates - had included putting EU clothes successfully on the mix of individual banking packages and was evidence of flexible internal coordination.  The Union was effective in trade policy and should work hard, together with the US, China and India, to end the deadlock on Doha.  The European Security Strategy of 2003 was a succinct, effective document, which proved how important it was for joint policies not to be negotiated word by word.  More important than any of these sectoral issues, the EU’s greatest underlying strength was still the maintenance of peace in Europe and the recognition of the equality of states of different sizes, aspirations and power.  To have built on that to construct the most complex and well organised regional organisation was a significant success.  Several non-Europeans around the table expressed their admiration of how well the Union worked and how well member states cooperated, considering their number and their diversity.

We asked ourselves how essential adoption of the Lisbon Treaty would be for further progress.  The Treaty was an expression of collective political will, in which member states had decided to apply the intergovernmental method to the field of foreign policy and had tried to solve some of the EU’s institutional problems in its external relations.  However, even though the Treaty was meant to clarify decision-making procedures and improve coordination between the Commission and the Council, several participants thought that the Lisbon Treaty provisions would in fact make things more complicated.  The High Representative for Foreign Affairs would have a huge workload spread across the two institutions and would inevitably compete with the permanent President in external representation.  Increased powers given to the European Parliament would complicate decision-making.  On the other hand, the Treaty would ensure continuity, would facilitate strategic thinking and would move more policy areas into the community field. Other positive elements of the treaty were co-decision, applying the community method to the area of justice and home affairs, giving national parliaments more power and codifying the subsidiarity principle.  The Treaty’s aim should be seen as to improve, not change, the system.

Several voices around the table objected to discussing Lisbon as though it was bound to be adopted.  Following the Irish referendum, it would be clearly undemocratic to impose it.  We should more usefully discuss what improvements could be made without the treaty.  Some suggestions were:

·       Strengthen the troika system to ensure continuity of external policies;

·       Use some Lisbon tools that do not require treaty change, eg joint task forces and joint delegations;

·       Second national civil servants directly to the Commission delegations;

·       Use a more holistic approach in mobilising the instruments of national contributions, trade and development;

·       Improve communication by, for instance, producing shorter and crisper Council Conclusions;

·       Increase efficiency by ad hoc delegation of tasks in a given political situation.

There was disagreement as to how this ad hoc delegation would work.  Final decisions would still need to be made by the Council to ensure legality and safeguard democracy within the system.  But working methods could be improved by reducing the need for negotiation on every small issue.  In the meantime, there were several concrete problems which needed to be addressed, such as the size of the Commission.  These sorts of practical and institutional issues could not be ignored if Lisbon remained unratified.

For all the talk about institutions, we agreed that people also mattered.  Wise management of the EU’s current capabilities could achieve a great deal.  Good leadership could furthermore develop an ethos of coordination and compromise, with the EU being regarded as the context and the stage for a whole range of activity.  This was already well reflected in the principle of subsidiarity but could be applied as well to the different processes that operated on different areas of substance.  What was truly European did not have to carry a rigid definition.  Again, the current economic crisis would offer an important context in which this spirit of compromise could be made to work.

If there were three priorities which participants felt should, and could, be addressed straightaway, they would be these:

·       To create clear narratives on EU objectives for both electorates and policy-makers.  Neither political leaders nor officials were good at explaining the underlying purpose of EU policies.  This would help ‘sell’ the EU to the public, as well as guide policy-makers and encourage more strategic coherence.

·       To use existing instruments coherently and flexibly.  The EU should focus on effective policies and use the numerous frameworks and policies it already had, rather than find new institutions and processes.

·       To develop strategic thinking.  The EU did not act strategically enough, sometimes because of genuine disagreements and sometimes because of poor understanding of global trends.  Member states could, at the very least, share more and better analyses with each other.

Our discussion covered a huge area of policy and dipped into many issues other than the EU’s global role.  We toyed with the idea of a Great Leap Forward, but in the end stayed with the more comfortable concept of incremental improvement.  Agreement on some concrete ways forward was aided by the careful guidance of our expert Chairman and we came away with several clear ideas on what should be done next, not least in response to the fresh wind blowing from Washington.  This debate in itself suggested that in some respects the EU already had an effective global outlook, but it recognised its limitations and left behind the prospect of a lot of work still to do.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman  :  Mr Charles Grant
Co-Founder and Director, Centre for European Reform (1996-);  Board Member and Trustee, British Council (2002-);  Member, International Council, Terra Nova;  Advisory Board Member, Moscow School of Political Studies.  Formerly:  Defence Editor and Brussels Correspondent, The Economist.  A Member, Ditchley Foundation Programme Committee.

Mr Daniel Gros

Director, Centre for European Policy Studies;  President, Eurizon Capital (2005-);  Member, ECB Shadow Council (2002-);  Editor, Economic Internationale.

Ms Daniella Xavier

Head, Division of European Affairs, Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2007-).

Ambassador Ross Hornby

Ambassador of Canada to the European Union (2006-).  Formerly:  Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy and Public Diplomacy, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (2003-06).
Dr Jennifer Jeffs
Deputy Executive Director and Senior Fellow, The Centre for International Governance Innovation, Ontario, Canada.

Professor Zhongping Feng

Director, Institute of European Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

Mr Michael Zilmer-Johns

Danish Diplomatic Service (1982-);  State Secretary for Foreign and Security Policy, EU Policy and EU Coordination and Head of the North Group (2005-).

Dr Kaja Tael

Estonian Diplomatic Service (1998-);  Under-Secretary for European Union Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tallinn (2006-).

Mr Patrick Child

Head of Cabinet to Mrs Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Commissioner of External Affairs and European Neighbourhood Policy, European Commission. 
Mr Julian King CMG
Head of Cabinet to Baroness Ashton, Commissioner for Trade, European Commission.

Mr Daniel Keohane

Research Fellow, EU Institute for Security Studies, Paris.  Formerly:  Senior Research Fellow, Security and Defence Policy, Centre for European Reform.

Mr Jean-Pierre Cloos

Director, Directorate for General Policy Questions, General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union (2006-).

Mr Gilles Andréani

Chief Counsellor, Court of Auditors, Paris (2007-);  Adjunct Professor of International Relations, Paris II Panthéon-Assas University. Formerly:  French Foreign Service.
Mr Laurent Cohen-Tanugi
Chair, French Government Task Force on Europe in the Global Economy (2007-08);  Managing Partner, Law Offices of Laurent Cohen-Tanugi;  Member, Paris and New York Bars.
Mr Pierre Lévy
Head, Policy Planning Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, France (2005-).  Formerly:  Head, Service for Common Foreign and Security Policy (2002-05).

Dr Volker Stanzel

German Diplomatic Service (1979-);  Political Director, German Federal Foreign Ministry (2007-).
Mr Jan Techau
Head of Programme, Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies, German Council on Foreign Relations.

Professor Rajendra Jain

Professor of European Studies (1998-) and Chairperson (2007-), Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi;  Secretary-General, Indian Association for European Union Studies.

Mr Witold Sobkow

Political Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Warsaw (2008-);  Ambassador, Department for Foreign Policy Planning (2007-).

HE Mr Staffan Carlsson

Swedish Diplomatic Service (1975-);  Ambassador of Sweden to the United Kingdom (2004-).

Mr Ashish Bhatt

Director, Aegis Research and Intelligence (2008-);  A Director, United Nations Association of the UK (2005-).
Mr David Frost
HM Diplomatic Service (1987-);  Director for Strategy and Policy Planning, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) (2008-).
Mr Roger Golland
HM Diplomatic Service (1978-);  Counsellor, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2001-).  Formerly: Counsellor, Brussels (1998-2001).
Professor Anand Menon
Director, European Research Institute and Professor of West European Politics, University of Birmingham.
Dr Edwina Moreton OBE
Diplomatic Editor and Deputy Foreign Editor, The Economist.  A Member, Ditchley Foundation Programme Committee.
Mr Gideon Rachman
Chief Foreign Affairs Columnist, The Financial Times (2006-).  Formerly:  The Economist:  Business Editor;  Brussels Bureau Chief.
Mr Matthew Rycroft CBE
HM Diplomatic Service (1989-);  Director, European Union (2008-).  Formerly:  Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina (2005-08).
Dr Stewart Wood
Senior Policy Adviser, Policy Directorate, 10 Downing Street (2007-);  Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford:  Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford;  Member, Council of Economic Advisers, HM Treasury. 

Mr Rutger Hopster

Senior Policy Adviser on EU Affairs, Department for International Development, on secondment from EuropeAid, Directorate-General for external Assistance Implementation, European Commission. 

Mr Tomas Valasek
Director, Foreign Policy and Defence, Centre for European Reform.  Formerly:  Senior Official, Slovak Ministry of Defence.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick GCMG CH

Chairman, The UN Association of the UK (2006-);  Independent Member, House of Lords.  Formerly:  Member, EU Select Committee, House of Lords (2002-06);  UK Diplomatic Service.

The Hon Matthew Bryza

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, US Department of State (2005-).  Formerly:  Director for Europe and Eurasia, National Security Council (2001-05).
Professor Alan Henrikson
Director of Diplomatic Studies, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University;  Member:  National Council, United Nations Association of the USA;  Executive Committee, Boston Committee on Foreign Relations;  Council on Foreign Relations, New York.