In favor of a common European diplomacy

This past November, the Belgian press began announcing the potential closure of thirty-three of the country’s embassies and consulates around the globe. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs « confirmed the existence of this list » 1. All of this seems very « national » in a country where regions have grown accustomed to having a direct and evermore exclusive hand in international relations, and where, after all, some people are working hard to build a post-Belgium. Which, regardless of one’s opinion, is perfectly legitimate. That said, this is not an issue that is limited only to Belgians. Most EU member states are currently faced with difficult choices about the ways in which they can reduce their governmental operating costs. And Foreign Affairs are no exception.

For obvious reasons, the question of operating budgets is less relevant for « large » member states than for « medium » and « small » ones. Yet some small states already have a limited number of embassies and consulates, while others are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the level of diplomatic and consular presence that – in some cases – they have had for many years. In one way or another, all of these countries are having to deal with the harsh reality of numbers, even though it is cloaked in official language that speaks of rationalization and optimization.

One question however remains. Is this drastic restructuring the only course open? Following Michel Liégeois, we can exclude any consideration of a European-wide solution, judging that « the role of a permanent EU representative is to represent the Union and not the interests of member states », and that « it is consequently difficult for a State to rely on that representation ». 2 As things stand, this assumption is at least partially relevant. But only partially, for treaties allow other courses of action. These « small » and « medium » States could in fact invoke Article 20 of the Maastricht Treaty, which would guarantee that enhanced cooperation not be used solely in favor of the « large » States. In other words, they could decide to parcel out their diplomatic relations with a certain number of non-EU countries, and, by so doing, demonstrate once again that it is possible to create an institutional mechanism that is able both to defend the parties’ interests and allow for the emergence of common interests.

One possibility

The fifteen « small » and « medium » States in the Eurozone and the Schengen Area (consular affairs) present the European Council with a proposal of enhanced cooperation which we’ll call the « Diplomatic and Consular Union » (DCU). The countries in question are Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia. These countries represent 83 million inhabitants and have a combined GDP of 2.257 billion Euros – less than Germany (2.737), but slightly more than France (2.060). 3

Which non-EU countries?

If we exclude the rest of Europe, the large and medium powers (the United States, the « BRICS », Japan, …), the former colonies of the countries participating in enhanced cooperation, and the neighboring Mediterranean countries (the Maghreb, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, …) there are « still » over 120 countries where these fifteen member States could be jointly represented.

In order for this scenario to be economically viable – at least for the countries that currently have the highest diplomatic expenditures – the contribution that each country makes in the new European network would have to be consistently less than what they would save by closing their embassies and consulates in non-EU countries, which would now pass under the. As things stand, this assumption is at least partially relevant. But only jurisdiction of the Diplomatic and Consular Union.

Here’s how it works

To begin with, the fifteen States would decide to group, or, rather « parcel out » their diplomatic and consular relations into seven regions: East Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, Southern Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, Oceania. 4

Following our scenario, some sixty countries would witness the opening of an embassy or consulate for the Diplomatic and Consular Union, which would necessitate the closing of a certain number of embassies and consulates of the individual member countries (about twenty for the Netherlands, fifteen or so for Belgium, between five and ten for Greece, Ireland, Finland and Portugal, and between zero and five for the other countries).

How would this be organized?

The fifteen States participating in the DCU would each delegate a Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs whose role would be to define in conjunction with his or her fourteen other colleagues the DCU’s policies on political, economic, cultural and other relations for each of the non-EU States for which the DCU would be responsible. The decisions of this « Council of Fifteen » would be made by a qualified majority. 5 With supervision from their Ministers, the Deputy Ministers would be responsible to their respective Parliaments for the policies of the Fifteen; moreover, they would be responsible for coordinating all DCU-sponsored business from within the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Interior Ministries (Consular Affairs: common rules for visa delivering, …) of their respective countries.

These fifteen States would jointly select one person in charge of executing the policies defined by the Ministerial Council of the participating countries. Elected for five years, this person would act as the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the fifteen participating countries at all meetings of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council that deal with questions concerning only those countries for which the DCU is in charge. The person would also lead the economic and commercial delegations in those countries.

Each member State’s financial share would be determined based on its GDP, as is the case with contributions to the EU budget. In the beginning, diplomatic personnel would be recruited via civil service exams from among the diplomatic personnel of the fifteen member States. Subsequently, any citizen from a member State who has passed the entrance exam to the European Commission would be eligible to serve.

Why only fifteen countries?

It should be clear by now that the ideal circumstance would be if all EU member States decided to participate in establishing this first stage of common foreign policy. But everyone also knows that some member States reject a priori any initiative of this type; indeed some would rather leave the Union altogether. Even within the Eurozone, some countries are clearly not ready for this type of collaboration. After ten years in power, it is hardly a stretch to say that Angela Merkel has shown no particular desire to see Germany participate in constructive steps toward European integration. The same could be said of France, where the last constructive effort can be traced back to Jacques Chirac’s presidency, which was nevertheless also controversial from this standpoint. We cannot exclude the possibility of Italy and Spain showing interest in this proposal, even though its positive financial and diplomatic impact would undoubtedly be less immediate and less noticeable on them than on the fifteen other states. Nevertheless, with Italy and Spain on board, the group’s common diplomatic force would obviously be quite considerable, for these seventeen States would have a combined GDP of 4.840 billion Euros and a population of 190 million inhabitants.

Upon what legal basis?

The question of legal basis is a thorny one, especially given that the treaty architects went out of their way to make it difficult – impracticable even – to establish enhanced cooperation in the area of foreign policy. The situation is so clear that one is tempted to take Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing’s belief that “the very essence of the diplomatic function is to represent and promote national interests” 6 as something of an understatement, for such diplomacy is above all concerned with guaranteeing the continuity of the corporation. Article 329 § 2 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states that the Council must vote unanimously to authorize an enhanced cooperation, or in other words, a single, non-participating member State can scuttle everything. There is no possible doubt, therefore, that the Council’s response to this initiative would inevitably be negative.

The art of side-stepping

This probable, even certain, veto should not and cannot, however, dissuade the fifteen States from taking the lead in protecting their interests and ambitions. An alternative exists, namely the Schengen method. The fifteen States could decide to establish a collective agreement endowed with legal personality, pooling their diplomatic and consular relations with a certain number of non-EU countries. Taking care to promote an institutional perspective that would eventually facilitate integrating this agreement into the Union’s general architecture, the participating member States would acknowledge the EU’s temporary refusal and would strive to achieve a form of organization that meshes the most seamlessly with the EU’s existing structures. So instead of an external figure in charge of executing their joint policies, the fifteen would opt for a rotating presidency. In other words, the Minister of Foreign Affairs would assume the rotating presidency of the DCU. He or she alone would defend, from within the Foreign Affairs Council of the entire EU, the policies adopted by the participating States, as well as representing the fifteen States in non-EU countries.

“Where there is a will, there is a way” 7

Such an instrument would allow the « small » and « medium » States in the European Union to achieve substantial economies of scale and an alternative to drastic cuts in their national diplomatic networks. At the same time, it would also pave the way for creating new forms of cooperation, for entering new markets, for enhancing collaboration among the economic players of the participating countries, and last but not least, for concretely demonstrating the feasibility of a genuine partitioning of European foreign policy, which would go some way to refuting the recurring assertion that Europe can only make progress behind the power of the Franco-German tandem.


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  1. “33 ambassades et consulats belges à l’étranger menacés de fermeture ”, La Libre, 29 November 2014
  2. “Pourquoi fermer des ambassades de Belgique?”, interview with Michel Liégeois, Professor and researcher at Cecri (UCL), by Thierry Boutte and Valentine Van Vyve, La Libre, 2 December 2014
  3. Source: Eurostat 2013
  4. East Africa: Burundi, the Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya,Uganda, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Somalia, South-Soudan, Tanzania; West Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo; Southern Africa: Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe; Central Africa: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Chad; Asia: Butan, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan; Central America and the Caribbean: Belize, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago; Oceania: New Zealand, Papua-New Guinea.
  5. 55% of member States vote in favor and the proposal is supported by member States representing at least 65% of the total DCU population.
  6. “Europa, La dernière chance de l’Europe”, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, XO Editions, Paris, 2014
  7. Winston Churchill

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