Challenges ahead for EU diplomacy

By Professor Sieglinde GSTÖHL

For this third issue of our newsletter, we have interviewed Professor Sieglinde GSTÖHL, Director of the College’s Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies since 2010, and course director of the executive education course EU Diplomacy & Diplomatic Skills. While reflecting on the challenges of the EU’s external action, Professor GSTÖHL points at the EU’s capacity to cope with its internal crisis as well as to build new international partnerships. All these aspects, together with representation, communication, and negotiation skills were developed within the EU Diplomacy course which took place from 8 to 10 October 2018 and will be developed as well in the Negotiations in Practice course running from 12 to 16 November 2018 in Bruges. We wish you an enjoyable read!  


Since the European External Action Service is a rather new institution, has the EU been able to develop an innovative diplomatic strategy or is it mainly modelling itself after the foreign services of nation-states? 

Diplomacy is about the mechanisms of representation, communication and negotiation. The question who represents, speaks and negotiates on behalf of the European Union is not always straightforward. The European External Action Service is thus a special body when compared to national foreign services: first of all, the legal competences of the EU in the different fields of external action vary considerably from foreign and security policy on the one hand to trade policy on the other. Second, the EEAS is composed of staff of different nationalities and from different origins of recruitment, in particular EU officials and national diplomats, and thus with different previous training and socialisation. Third, speaking or negotiating on behalf of an influential block of countries can bestow the EEAS with quite some political weight. Yet, it requires a common position.

In this respect, what are the main challenges of the EU and the EEAS in not representing a nation-state but a group of not always like-minded countries?

Internally, one of the main challenges of representing a group of countries is the need for strong internal coordination mechanisms, and for a convergence of member states’ political will, to allow the EEAS (or another EU representative) to speak with a single voice – or with a single message in case of many voices – on the international stage. The Union must seek to achieve coherence in external action both vertically between the EU level and the member states and horizontally across policy fields. Externally, the EU has been and still is a champion of multilateralism, but the liberal, rules-based international order it cherishes is increasingly coming under pressure. Moreover, in many international organisations (such as in most UN bodies) only states can become members and the EU thus has to cope with a different status compared to nation-states.

What are the key challenges the EU will face in the mid- to long-term on the international stage?

The EU is currently coping with the aftermath of the economic and migration crises and will have to manage the fallout of Brexit and the rise of populism. These internal crises also have an impact on the capacity of the EU to act on the international stage. In the longer run, the Union and its member states need to come to grips with geopolitical power shifts such as the rise of China and other emerging economies, and they need to find better ways to effectively deal with Russia as well as a more unpredictable United States. The EU might well have to assume more global responsibility and to forge new partnerships.

The EU is internationally mainly known as a strong trade partner, has this been beneficial or detrimental for its place in the international diplomatic scene?

I would say it has overall been beneficial since the EU has considerable bargaining power in trade negotiations and can on this basis also leverage quite some political clout in areas beyond trade. In its trade agreements the EU often makes linkages to so-called non-trade concerns like human rights, sustainable development or climate change, and it may provide financial and technical assistance to partner countries. It normally concludes political cooperation agreements in parallel with trade agreements. On the other hand, the EU is often still seen as “just” a trade power. In his recent “State of the Union” address, Commission President Juncker therefore spoke of the need for the EU to further develop its “Weltpolitikfähigkeit” – its capacity to play a role in shaping global political affairs.

Should the EU focus more on ‘soft diplomacy’ issues such as mediation?

The European Union – itself a peace project – has traditionally focused more on conflict prevention and post-conflict peace-building. In recent years, it has increasingly supported a more comprehensive, integrated approach to external conflicts and crises, which means addressing all dimensions and stages of a conflict. This also means that the EU needs to develop different aspects of diplomacy, soft and harder ones. The 2016 Global Strategy makes clear that in a fragile world soft power is not enough and that security and defence must be addressed as well.

Have the innovations of the 21st century, such as digital diplomacy, fundamentally changed the efforts of governments in public diplomacy?

New technologies such as social media or live videos can facilitate diplomacy – through easier, cheaper and faster communication by more actors and to a much broader audience – but they can also hamper diplomacy, if you think, for example, of the potential for disinformation or for misunderstandings created by twitter diplomacy and other tools. Digital outreach is indeed of particular importance for public diplomacy, generally understood as the transparent means by which a country communicates with publics in other countries with the goal of informing and influencing those foreign publics for the purpose of promoting national (or European) interests. Public diplomacy has broadened, as not only governments and the EU but other actors like international organizations, parliaments, sub-national actors, NGOs and private companies or even celebrities, also engage with foreign publics. For any public diplomacy strategy to be successful in the long run, it is crucial to remain credible and thus avoid glaring gaps between rhetoric and action.


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