In a roundtable discussion on December 3rd, Ambassador Eikka Kosonen and Prof Wolfgang Wessels (University of Cologne) examined the European Council’s role in shaping the External Action of the European Union (EU). Juha Jokela, Programme Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), chaired and Linda Dieke (University of Cologne) commented the discussion that was attended by about 45 participants.

Juha Jokela introduced to the topic raising the question, whether the institution of the European Heads of State or Government (HoSG) is truly a practical decision-making body in today’s foreign policy.

Prof Wessels answered to the questions pointing out a difference of this particular policy field: Unlike in other EU integration steps, where the European Council has been the key institution to decide on for instance all major treaty changes or economic and financial crisis mechanisms, it has been less active in the field of External Action. Theoretically, it is in charge of bridging the two pillars of the EU’s external action, namely of CFSP and External Economic Relations. However, although the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty have increased the respective functions of the European Council (see e.g. Art.22 (TEU)), and it is supposed to be the ‘voice’ as well as the ‘face’ of EU external action, the record of its output is mixed. Especially in its role as crisis manager it has been very hesitant from the beginning, which displayed, for instance, in the reaction to developments in Syria or Libya. The main reason for this behavior is the reluctance of the three largest Member States to agree on a common policy. Additionally, the interests of all 28 Member States are – also in geographical terms – very diverse. Furthermore, the EU is already a less independent decision-maker in this policy field, because it relies very much on the support of the USA.

Eikka Kosonen, who until recently served as an advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office of Finland, and who has long experience e.g. as Permanent Representative of Finland to the European Union, firstly placed the discussion into a wider perspective: The importance of the EU’s values in a global context, seen from its integration narrative, should not be forgotten. It would be astonishing that even a common European defense is considered nowadays. He however underlined that the European Union might be at a turning point now, with many crises having faced the Member States in the recent years. In this regard, no other institution than the European Council as ultimate decision-making body should take the responsibility of actions concerning terrorism, migration, defence and other core issues. For large states, a common policy might first seem like a limitation of action space – for the total of Member States, and especially the smaller ones (including Finland), it would rather be an opportunity to tackle common challenges. Lastly he emphasized that the matter would be less a question of the institutional organisation than of the political will of the leaders.

Linda Dieke commented on the contributions and presented an overview of the European Council meetings of recent years and the External Action topics discussed at the summits. She pointed to a mismatch between the functions as laid down in the treaties, which see the European Council as providing strategic interests and long-term guidelines, and its agendas, which mostly include only short-term interventions to topical crises. In these matters, the European Council would not provide an added value to decisions taken and compromises made at preparatory levels of EU institutions. It would therefore be questionable, also regarding the sporadic nature of meetings of the HoSG, if other institutions should not immediately sign responsible for the EU’s external actions, without the (differences in the) European Council attracting the attention. In order to prevent an ‘expectations-capability-gap’, it should rather concentrate on the global strategies of the EU.

The following discussion included questions on the general possibilities of integrating this policy field, on whether the CFSP would not always remain a 29. European Foreign Policy, and on the fact that HoSG are focusing very much on their own performance’s impact on national opinion polls rather than on consensus-building. Also the question of the legitimacy of the European Council as decision-making body in external action was raised. In a conclusion, the participants agreed that finding a common external action policy would increase the EU’s global role, but institutional arrangement of the European Council as well as the political will of the HoSG for joint action still pose obstacles to this aim.

(Linda Dieke)