August Books 53) Cornelius Adebahr on the EU’s Special Representatives

Working in the slipstream of EU foreign policy as I do, I have had a lot of dealings with the European Union’s Special Representatives – I have known most of the EUSRs for Macedonia (one of whom is now my colleague), all of the EUSRs for Moldova and the South Caucasus, and several others. One of a number of statements that surprised me in Cornelius Adebahr’s new book, Learning and Change in European Foreign Policy: The Case of the EU Special Representatives, was that they are not particularly well-known outside EU diplomatic circles, and have attracted little attention from academic analysts. I note that three ICG papers which I worked on appear in his bibliography, so I guess I am not in the group of people that he needs to convert.

The EU’s Special Representatives tend to be senior diplomats (occasionally retired politicians or ex-UN officials) hired by the EU to be a European institutional presence in a conflict area. They have a legal basis from the Amsterdam Treaty, which came into force in 1999, but actually first were invented in 1996 in the wake of the Rwanda genocide. They work under EU foreign policy supremo Javier Solana, but (bureaucratic complexity!) are technically employees of the European Commission, and their Brussels offices are not actually in Solana’s splendid Justus Lipsius Building but elsewhere in our neighbourhood. Some are resident in-country (Macedonia, Bosnia, etc) but most are based in Brussels and travel to their region regularly. Their role is partly to be a political face for the EU, representing the collective views of all 27 member states, and partly also to coordinate the various EU actors, and sometimes others as well, on the ground. In Macedonia and Addis Ababa, the EUSR also heads up the relevant Commission office; in Bosnia and Kosovo, he also has a second mandate from a wider international ad hoc groupin (all four of these are thus “double-hatted”).

All of the EUSRs, past and present, have been male.

Adebahr’s theoretical argument is that the behaviour of political institutions can be explained, at least in part, as a learning process, and that the way in which the EU has adapted its procedures to accomodate changing practice with regard to the EUSRs illustrates this. Being a practititoner rather than a theoretician, I have no real idea of how well this fits into current academic debates, and I don’t much care either. Adebahr admits that his organisational learning model is not sufficient to explain how the EU works, but hopes to demonstrate that it is at least necessary; I am myself a bit doubtful about his two key examples of organisational learning in practice, as explained below. His survey of rival theoretical approaches was a bit hasty, and for what it’s worth the stimulus-response model attributed to Bo Hedberg sounds more intuitively attractive to me.

Adebahr succeeds reasonably well in describing the institutional history and set-up of the (rather slim) EUSR apparatus. The biggest problem with analysing the EUSRs is actually that the organisation as such is very thin; most of them operate with only a handful of staff, who tend to get rotated in and out at regular intervals, so the institutional memory is inevitably shallow. Adebahr’s interviewees are, however, deeply embedded insiders including all the serving EUSRs at the time of his research, so he has a good broad view of the situation. There is one significant omission: the European Council’s geographical working groups, many of which operate as standing committees of Brussels-based diplomats, rather than the occasional gatherings of flying visitors from national capitals which he describes. (They and the civilian crisis management staff are absent from the organigram on page 61 which also refers to DG RELEX as “Rolex”. It is a part of the European Commission, not a watch.)

I could not completely agree with Adebahr’s actual detection of organisational learning happening in practice. His strongest finding of it is that EUSRs were removed from the chain of command for EU security or civilian missions in-country in early 2007, and he explains this as a recognition of the fact that as diplomats they tended not to have the necessary expertise in police or justice issues. This is very far from being the whole story. The EU Police Mission in Bosnia in its earlier years famously refused to accept political guidance from the EU Special Representative, who was not a seconded diplomat but Paddy Ashdown, a British politician from a military/security background. I personally have been told by other former EUSRs in other situatiions of their inability to get the EU mission leader in-country to accept their political guidance. Rather than attempting to enforce its own chain of command, the EU decided that the EUSRs should be cut out of it. This seems to me not learning, but making a virtue of bureaucratic necessity and conceding to inertia – I would go further and say that it was the wrong decision. The EUPM in Bosnia, as it originally operated, appeared to be wilfully ignorant of local political context and failed to mesh with the international community’s approach. The bureaucratic shifts of early 2007 probably make such problems more likely, rather than less likely, in future. I interpreted the episode as a turf war in which 150 Avenue Cortenbergh defeated the scattered EUSR offices, rather than an impressive example of organisational learning. I will of course be delighted if the new arrangements work better and I am proved wrong, but I no longer work on the relevant countries so my information is less current.

Likewise, Adebahr’s other example, the re-siting of the EUSRs for Moldova and the South Caucasus to Brussels rather than the officials’ home countries, struck me as a successful reassertion of strength by the Council Secretariat to overcome an anomalous situation originally dictated by questions of human and financial resources, ie Talvitie and Jacobovits de Szeged did not want to move to Brussels, and that was just about tolerable while the Finns and Dutch were picking up the tab, but became difficult once they were brought properly onto EU fundng, and then irrelevant when they were replaced.

Adebahr ends by considering – assuming that the Irish referendum in October approves the Lisbon Treaty – if and how the already extant EUSR structure should be integrated into the proposed European External Action Service (which is studiously not being called a diplomatic corps in order not to frighten the British; comments on this point from British readers are welcome). I have heard rumours that the EEAS, far from the grand merger of Council Secretariat and Commission services for external affairs, trade and development which its inventors imagined, is likely to be a much more modest affair. In any case, Adebahr’s urging of flexibility rather than rigidity of approach is surely correct.

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