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Pierre Vimont:

Developing the European External Action Services, a gradual process

, by Lucas Buthion, Translated by Holden James Ferry

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Former permanent representative of France at the European Union and former Ambassador to the United States Pierre Vimont has been serving since late 2010 as the Executive Secretary General of the European External Action Services (EEAS) headed by Lady Catherine Ashton. In other words, Vimont is Ashton’s right-hand man. He spoke with The New Federalist at Sciences Po Toulouse, where he was attending a conference, to share his thoughts on the EEAS’s activities over the past two years and assess the future prospects of European foreign policy.


  • Ancien Vice-président des Jeunes Européens-France

  • Graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (California, USA). Currently studying for a Master’s degree in translations in Monterey.

The New Federalist: Due to a lack of media coverage at the national level, the European External Action Service remains somewhat of a mystery to Europeans, who are still a bit confused as to just what this institution does. So, between simply coordinating national foreign policies and developing an actual European foreign policy, what is the role of the EEAS?

Pierre Vimont: You’re right. I think the first misunderstanding that must be dispelled is that people expected the EEAS, from day one, to be comparable to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris or the Foreign Office in London. But creating something like the EEAS takes time and patience. You can’t just throw it together in a day or two, especially seeing that it is made up of several different institutions: the European Commission, the European Council, and the member states. We have to invent a new way of operating for this administration, because we are not an institution.

There has been nothing in the past that quite resembles the EEAS; we are a completely new structure. And we are involved in an area that is extremely sensitive and delicate. I think that once people realize that this is going to take longer than expected and that it is a gradual process, then they start to see things a bit differently. That said, it’s true that we probably should be doing more in terms of communication and making the EEAS more visible to the public. I am not trying to let myself off the hook here, but you have to understand that during the first few years, we had a million different things to do, and we had to first and foremost make sure that everything was working properly, that the meetings were running according to plan. We were sort of feeling our way as we went along. Catherine Ashton said it best: “The airplane has taken off, and inside, we are still bolting on the wheels and installing the seats.” It just takes time. But I think that, little by little, we’ll find our rhythm and start to improve things.

We do have to learn how to make the EEAS better known to the public and see to it that our achievements are better promoted. And we have to do so without turning the member states against us. So, it’s a very delicate game.

The New Federalist: Does the EEAS have a communications unit for informing or teaching Europeans about its activities?

Pierre Vimont: We do have a communications unit that has just begun operating. Its spokespersons were, until now, spokespersons of the Commission, and so we are now trying, little by little, to make them spokespersons of the EEAS, which requires a bit of adjusting. Our delegations abroad also play a role in our efforts to make the EEAS better known, but I personally believe that what will eventually make the biggest difference will be when people can look around and, in multiple different instances, say, “That diplomatic success was thanks to the European External Action Service.” We can already start to see the makings of something like that happening in the Horn of Africa. Somalia is a country that we had all more or less brushed aside: “Failed state,” “Don’t travel there anymore,” etc. But now all of a sudden, people are once again taking interest in Somalia, and what they are seeing is that Europe has always maintained a strong presence there. Our delegate to Somalia is now in Mogadishu, which is not easy, and he has succeeded in establishing a relationship of trust with the authorities and is working very closely with them. That is a huge added-value for us.

The New Federalist: Speaking of current events, could you talk about the little-known but key role that the EEAS is playing in the Iranian crisis?

Pierre Vimont: The 27 member states have entrusted Cathy Ashton and the EEAS with the responsibility of presiding over the group that negotiates at the level of the International Community: the “3+3” or “5+1” group (the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, Germany, and France). As such, we are the leaders of the game, albeit a game that is highly monitored by those six countries. Unfortunately, Europe has not yet succeeded in achieving a breakthrough with Iran; doing so remains an extremely difficult task. Europe’s biggest achievement so far has been maintaining the unity of this group of six. We have always succeeded in getting everyone to move forward in the same direction. What’s more, we have brought to the table reasonable and honest proposals vis-à-vis Iran. The Iranians have rejected all of them so far, but I think that those proposals serve as a base upon which we can work, if Iran were willing to do so.

The New Federalist: Are these proposals more reasonable than those made by the United States?

Pierre Vimont: The United States works with us and is an active member of the 3+3 group. The problem is that we are dealing with an Iranian regime that doesn’t believe us when we say that our objective in these negotiations over its nuclear problem is non-proliferation. They think that we are trying to bring about a regime change. The United States, however, has reiterated time and again that our objective is not a regime change. But Iran does not trust us and continues to believe that we have a hidden agenda. We therefore must continue to work patiently, as Catherine Ashton is doing, in order to rectify this lack of trust.

It’s an extremely difficult task, and I can’t say whether or not we will succeed. Now that the election is over in the United States and Obama has been reelected, Iran can no longer say that there is political uncertainty in America. We will see over the coming weeks if they start to open up and work more constructively with us. We can’t forget, though, that we are also heading into the Iranian presidential election, which will be held next June. With the divisions that that election will arouse within Iran, this is perhaps not the right time for the Iranian regime to adapt a more constructive attitude.

The New Federalist: Moving on to another “hot topic”: we saw that there was not a consensus within the EU with respect to granting Palestine observer state status at the United Nations. What role did the EEAS play in that process? Were any attempts made at reconciliation in order to try to come to a common agreement?

Pierre Vimont: Yes, there was an extremely interesting discussion at the last Council of Ministers, where several ministers called on the 27 states to come to a common agreement, which most likely would have only been possible through abstention. Catherine Ashton was asked to stay in contact with the 27 states to see if we could not get them to rally around abstention. We quickly realized, though, that it wasn’t going to work. Three or four member states told us very clearly that they would vote “yes” and could not consider abstention. At the same time, we had other states telling us that they were absolutely set on voting “no.” Since a consensus could not be reached through abstention, France ended up announcing that it would vote “yes,” with several other countries following suit.

With that backdrop, the EEAS suggested, before the vote took place, that the 27 member states prepare a declaration that Catherine Ashton could read on their behalf. The goal was to strongly reaffirm our positions regarding the peace process and underscore the EU’s willingness to maintain an open dialogue with the Middle East. We wanted to show that although we did not vote unanimously, it does not mean that we are not united in terms of the objective that we are striving for. The Palestinians understood this and expressed approval of our initiative. Europe reiterated that it would continue to stand united in terms of striving for a two-state solution and denouncing Israel’s colonization policy – like the United States, we have just reaffirmed our strong stance concerning the latter.

Will we start to see some changes, then? It’s hard to say at the moment. What we have seen, however, is that the recent events in Gaza and the cease-fire obtained by Egypt are creating a new dynamic, a new state of mind. Will it lead to a solution? Let’s not be too quick to jump to conclusions. We can’t just turn a blind eye to history; there have been too many disappointments in the past. But it perhaps marks a turning point that we should try to act on, seeing that the events of the Arab Spring are creating an environment that is inevitably having an influence on the current Palestinian problem.

The New Federalist: The EU is currently in the process of negotiating its budget for the 2014-2020 period. How much will be reserved for external action and the EEAS? What would you say to those who want to make this policy simply an adjustment variable of the EU budget?

Pierre Vimont: There are two parts reserved for the EEAS. The first one regards administrative expenses, which currently amount to about 480 million euros. We have full jurisdiction over the management of those funds, which almost all of the member states want to reduce. Needless to say, we are not too pleased with that. What we want people to know is that, since we are an administration that is only just getting off the ground, we have fallen victim to a classic phenomenon: when funds are transferred to a new administration, not all of the corresponding resources are transferred. You generally start with 10 or 15% below the required minimum. We have a real problem in that regard, and it needs to be fixed.

As for what are known as “operational expenses,” the objective for the 2014-2020 period is to aim for about 60 billion euros for all programs related to EU external action: European Neighborhood Policy, development aid, etc. We do have a say in this area, and we are the ones in charge of deciding the strategic priorities, but it’s the Commission that manages them, not us. If, by the end of the current negotiations, we are able to preserve our current allocation plus inflation, it’s probably the best that we will be able to do. What you have to understand here is that these financial resources at the European level, by virtue of their mass effect, can have a bigger impact than any of the member states could hope to produce individually. The EU is the world’s largest development aid donor, which has really given a boost to the EU and its image in the world. If we reduce funding by too much, we risk hurting the EU’s influence.

The New Federalist: Implementing a truly European “diplomatic service” is an opportunity to share national expenses related to diplomacy and generate considerable budgetary savings. Over the past two years, have you noticed countries adjusting their national diplomacy at all to this new situation?

Pierre Vimont: I can give you two examples. The first one concerns national diplomacy and diplomatic networks. Take Spain or Portugal, for example. With all of the budget cuts that they have to make, those countries sometimes have to shut down their embassies, for instance in Africa. In such cases, the EEAS is asked to take over and provide a steady flow of information as to what is going on in those countries. In certain cases, we could even go as far as housing a diplomat from one of those countries in our delegation offices. We could be seeing more and more of this type of example in the coming years.

The second example deals with all things related to military expenses and capacities. In a Europe where we are going to see military budgets decrease in terms of both administrative and equipment spending, the future of security and European defense will rely more and more on pooling efforts. This has already been discussed by the 27 member states and will continue to be discussed, because the President of the European Council, Mr. Van Rompuy, really wants the heads of state and government to take up this issue.

The New Federalist: Can this increasingly integrated model of European diplomacy be considered a step closer to European federalism?

Pierre Vimont: You’re right. Everything that we are doing right now within the EU is aimed at going further and further in the direction of integration. If you look at the decisions currently being made with respect to the economy, what we are going to see, once we come out of the crisis, is that we have taken giant steps in terms of budgetary integration, banking union, and in coordinating economic policies. In other words, we will have achieved what we were not able to obtain in the Maastricht Treaty – even though we knew very well at the time that we needed it. We are currently doing the same thing in terms of foreign policy: we’re trying to achieve more integration. What I find interesting about the EEAS is that we are inventing something new in areas that are reducing national sovereignty. With the Treaty of Lisbon, this new method that we are inventing is trying to synthesize the community method, where the Commission has pre-eminence and a monopoly of initiative, and the intergovernmental method, which has seemed to prevail lately though its limitations are clear.

As is often the case with the European method, we are moving forward at a very gradual pace. For Young Europeans like you, full of enthusiasm and more inclined to leapfrog some of the steps, this is far from satisfying. But it’s often the only possible way, especially considering the fact that even the creation of the EEAS (all things considered, a rather prudent decision) is being met with very strong objections. When you see members of Parliament (as we saw at a recent debate on European defense at the European Parliament) challenging the very principle of the EU’s defense and security policy, it’s clear that the only way we can move forward is by taking one small step at a time.

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