Lessons from the Ukraine crisis: Why the EU should choose Sikorski as the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs

christianschweiger |

With the strengthening of the role of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty the EU seemed to have made a decisive step towards enhancing the institutionalisation of foreign and security policy. Lisbon renamed the post of High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, which had been held by the former Spanish defence minister and NATO secretary general Javier Solana since 1999, into High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. More importantly it was decided to support the post with a newly created European External Action Service, in effect a collective EU diplomatic service which works in close cooperation with national diplomatic services. Under the provisions of Lisbon the High Representative also adopted a new dual role as both Vice-President of the European Commission and Chair of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council.

These moves pointed towards a greater willingness of member state governments to work towards strengthening the collective external representation of the EU. The appointment of Baroness Catherine Ashton to the post however illustrated that national governments maintained their tendency to safeguard autonomy over their foreign and security policies. Ashton, a Labour live peer in the House of Lords and UK Commissioner for Trade since 2007, came into the post with little experience of foreign policy and security issues. Like Herman Van Rumpoy, the choice for the position of EU Council president, Ashton was widely considered as a deliberate choice to ensure that the new High Representative would not act as a quasi EU foreign minister by trying to implement a distinctive supranational policy agenda. This explains why many governments in the EU were reluctant to support the appointment of British foreign minister David Miliband as High Representative. The concerns were that Miliband, who had built up a reputation as an outspoken independent thinker in the New Labour administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, would use the portfolio to overshadow national foreign ministers. In contrast Ashton’s reserved style, which resembles that of an administrator, was considered to be more suitable to ensure that the High Representative would remain in a predominantly coordinative and reactive role.

Ashton nevertheless soon had to bear growing levels of criticism, most of all over he reserved role during the Libya crisis. In 2011 newspapers across Europe reported that patience was wearing thin amongst EU government with Ashton whom they accused of doing too little and demanding to much financial support for her portfolio (The Guardian EU foreign ministers round on Lady Ashton 23/5/11). Fortunately for Ashton during most of her period in office the EU was preoccupied by trying to resolve the deepening eurozone debt crisis. National governments consequently paid less attention to the crises in Libya, Syria and initially also Ukraine than they may have done if the crisis had not hit the eurozone economies. In spite of the criticism of Ashton’s supposed inactivity it seemed that EU leaders were pretty content with the scope Ashton granted them to pursue their own foreign policy priorities. Libya was therefore resolved by a joint military coalition between Britain, France and the US rather than by a collective EU military operation. The EU also failed to offer a collective response reaction to the revolt against president Yanukovych in Kiev. Instead the so-called Weimar Triangle, consisting of the French, German and Polish foreign ministers tried to negotiate a deal between Yanukovych and the protesters which was widely criticised when it failed to lead towards the agreed peaceful transition after an early presidential election. Since Yanukovych’s forced resignation and exit from the country, Ukraine has become increasingly unstable as a result of Russia’s obvious interference. Putin’s orchestrated secession of Crimea and the ongoing subsequent activities of pro-Russian separatist militants in the Eastern part of Ukraine are a clear indication that Russia pursues a long-term strategy of destabilising the country. In the absence of a collective EU response towards Russia and the future of Ukraine Putin has so far been able to play a cat and mouse game with his European counterparts. The extreme likelihood that pro-Russian rebels were responsible for the shooting down of Malaysian airlines flight 17 over Ukraine seems to have finally instilled a new sense of unity amongst EU governments with regard to their position towards Russia. With Cathy Aston waiting to hand over her portfolio to a successor and the failure of the recent EU summit in Brussels to agree on the nomination of a candidate the ball nevertheless remains in the court of national foreign ministers. In this respect Germany as Russia’s biggest trading partner seems to have become the main focus of the Kremlin. Putin will therefore most of all watch out for Chancellor Merkel’s reaction to the calls from Britain and some of the Central and Eastern European member states to impose biting structural economic sanctions against Russia.

If this situation is not resolved quickly the overall credibility of the EU as a global actor could suffer serious damage. More importantly, the appointment of another inexperienced person to the post of EU High Representative is likely to undermine the EU’s external influence and damage the interests of its member states. As the Ukraine crisis is likely to continue to remain on the EU’s external agenda for some time to come it will be essential that the new High Representative is able to coordinate national positions on this issue effectively. This demands the profound knowledge of the complexity of the EU’s institutional structures and decision-making processes. Ashton’s successor should also be someone who has established sufficient diplomatic clout to be regarded as a serious player by Moscow and other partners around the globe. The appointment of the current Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini, who only took office in February this year, would be the wrong signal in this respect. What the EU now needs to act as a credible force over Ukraine and future crisis in its immediate neighbourhood is a High Representative of the calibre of national foreign ministers such as Sikorski, Steinmeier, Fabius or even Hague. The appointment of the latter would send a positive signal towards London that the EU is seriously committed towards ensuring that the UK remains a member. Having just resigned as British foreign minister Hague is however unlikely to want to return to a demanding EU post which would not allow him little time to pursue his publishing plans. The choice of Steinmeier or Fabius would bring wide-ranging experience to the post but risks giving the impression that the two largest member states continue to dominate the external affairs agenda of the EU.  Given the current circumstances Radoslaw Sikorski’s appointment would be the best option for the EU. Although he is not uncontroversial and has recently been embroiled in some quite significant political turmoil at home, Oxford-educated Sikorski has the political calibre and the experience to represent the EU’s external interests eloquently and convincingly. He has been in the post of Polish foreign minister since 2007. During this period Sikorski has gained significant experience of the EU’s external affairs. For quite some time he had the image of being a rather uncritical supporter of the United States.

His recently secretly taped comments about the state of transatlantic relations were rather drastic and definitely not meant to be publicised. They nevertheless show that he is genuinely committed towards ensuring that the EU develops an effective common foreign and security policy which makes it less dependent on Washington. Sikorski has also shown that he is a team player. Throughout his period in office he has worked closely with his counterparts in Berlin, Paris, London and established  close cooperation with other Central and Eastern European member states, most of all with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia under the Visegrád cooperation. This has helped Sikorski to gain a profound understanding of the diverging national interests in the EU and he has frequently acted as a moderator between them. The recent scandal surrounding the secret recordings of his private conversations once again illustrates that he is not someone who is afraid to speak his mind. He did this most prominently in public during his visit to Berlin in November 2011 when he called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to take a more active leadership role in the EU by emphasising ‘I fear German power less than German inaction’. His efforts to strengthen Poland’s influence in the Weimar Triangle alongside Germany and France reflect a determination to make an active contribution to the leadership of the EU, particularly in the area of foreign and security affairs.

Sikorski is known to be an ardent critic of Russian president Putin but it would be wrong to accuse him of an anti-Russian bias. He is fully aware of the variety of bilateral economic and political relations between individual EU member states and Russia. He would certainly try to ensure that the EU adopts a coherent and unified stance towards Putin’s strategy of trying to maintain influence in the former Soviet Union republics. As someone with a profound knowledge of specific national interests in the Central and Eastern European region Sikorski would be best placed to act as a mediator between the EU and Russia without neither compromising European interests nor adopting an unnecessarily confrontational stance towards Putin. Most of all the appointment of the foreign minister of the largest CEE member state to the post of High Representative would be a significant step towards recognising the group of countries who only joined a decade ago as equal partners in the EU. By putting Sikorski in the job the EU could show the world that the times when foreign and security affairs were exclusively determined by Berlin, Paris and London are truly over.