Toward a European Foreign Policy: The European External Action Service

An Interview with Pierre Vimont

This Feature appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

Pierre Vimont is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, was French ambassador to the U.S. and later the European Union, and served from 2010 to 2015 as the first exectuive secretary-general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the diplomatic arm of the European Union. Now a Visiting Professor at Columbia SIPA, his research focuses on the European Union, the practice of diplomacy, and European foreign policy both among member states and across the Atlantic. Professor Vimont spoke to the Journal about the early days of the EEAS, contrasting reaction to Russian aggression in 2014 versus in 2022, and the surprising adaptability of Europe’s institutions under pressure.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): You were the first in your position as the executive secretary-general of the EEAS. What were some of the challenges of heading up a brand new post? And maybe if you could speak to some of what you believe are your accomplishments from those first few years?

Pierre Vimont (PV): I wouldn’t dare talk about accomplishment because this is an ongoing progress. But yes, we had more or less to do everything. I think Cathy Ashton used to say that we launched the external actions service as a plane starting to fly while we still had to screw the wheels, close the doors and set the seats. It was fascinating because we had to set up this first diplomatic service for the European Union at the same time as events were erupting, and tension was arising in many different places. Don’t forget that the first year of the External Action Service was the year of the Arab Spring; we had political and social movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, all countries that are the natural southern neighbors of the European Union. So it was a lot of work for all of us. At the same time, we had to recruit the whole new staff of the External Action Service, draft its internal regulations, find the right kind of working relations we wanted to develop with the EU Commission, the Council of Ministers, and each one of the member states’ own diplomatic services. So yes, it was a difficult task. But we all knew that in advance and we had accepted the challenge. At the same time, it is a unique experience of starting something new and trying to give birth to a brand new organization out of scratches. In all truth, it can only be an ongoing process. And we still need, I think, a few more years before we can call it a day for the External Action Services.

JIA: As a follow up, what were you thinking going into that process? Were there clear expectations around the goals or the desires of the EEAS? Was there this belief that there needs to be a stronger diplomatic presence, and you would figure out what that might look like as you went through the setup process? Establishing norms at the same time that you’re developing policy and formalizing procedure must have been doubly difficult.

PV: You’re absolutely right. I think the difficulties were twofold. The first one was exactly the point you made. It wasn’t clear at the beginning, and maybe I could add it’s still not very clear yet, what was the mission mandate of the External Action Service. Was it supposed to be one additional diplomatic service on top of the 27 diplomatic services of each member state? Or was it supposed to add some value to what the other diplomatic services traditionally do in each country? But then what should this added value be? Or should the Service be a mere spokesperson for all the other member states, the single voice of all things related to European foreign policy? Or could it be something different, perhaps a factory of ideas for the EU member states? I still think the EU diplomatic service is facing this challenge as the member states, which are in the end the stakeholders of that enterprise, have not entirely made up their minds about what they genuinely expect from the EEAS.

Then the second challenge is precisely how do EU member states accept the External Action Service moving into the realm of foreign policy with an existence of its own, and how to convince member states that they should all together follow a common line on important foreign policy issues and apply a certain degree of coordination and discipline when a common diplomatic position has been agreed by all 27 Union members. In fact, for many member states, when they accepted the creation of a European External Action Service, they didn’t know exactly if and how this new service should position itself with regard to their own foreign policy. Was the nature of this new process to give the EU foreign policy an autonomous function or simply a complementary one? It was never very clear. If you only look at the EU treaty, you will see that member states still retain the right to define their own national foreign policy, with the only commitment to inform other member states. Therefore if one member state wants to take an individual initiative in foreign policy, it is allowed to do so. Naturally the Treaty does envisage the possibility for the Union to come out with common positions on foreign policy issues where EU members have agreed to converge. But it not a legal obligation like the one existing for the build up of the EU Single Market or the EU trade policy.

JIA: You served as the executive secretary-general of the EEAS from 2010 to 2015, which covers the first Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. What was the response within the EEAS and the EU member states of that invasion?

PV: I think, to a very large extent, the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas took Europeans by surprise. Because, from the Russian point of view, these were the direct consequence of the internal political crisis, what was then called the Maidan Revolution, that had taken place just before in Kyiv and had led to a change of regime. Very few were those among the international observers who at that time foresaw that a domestic issue inside Ukraine would lead to an international crisis.

Today with hindsight and comparing with ongoing events unfolding in Ukraine since February 24 of last year, one tends to forget that the Crimean annexation happened in a very short period. When European nations—and the US as well—started to react, they were in reality already confronted with a de facto situation on the ground with Crimea overtaken by unidentified military and a swift so-called referendum that endorsed the reunion with Russia. If not opting for direct confrontation which was not an easy option with the military takeover already in place, the only solution left were sanctions and the non recognition of the annexation of Crimea.

It is a common view today to criticize those sanctions compared to the several rounds of restrictive measures taken since last year, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No doubt these last sanctions are comprehensive and severe. But in 2014, we were experiencing a new process in close coordination with our American allies. And the EU, here again in conjunction with our U.S. colleagues, reinforced our sanctions with new decisions as the Russian military was pursuing its infiltration into eastern Ukraine. It is for all to see that we Europeans didn’t mobilize in the same way as we mobilized last year, after the 24th of February 2022. But the nature of the then Russian military intervention was quite different from today. It was very low key, under the radar screen to a very large extent, in complete opposition to the direct and open confrontation we are witnessing today between Ukraine and Russia. Additionally one can observe another difference between 2014 and today: by then there was a constant diplomatic activity very early on from the UN, the OSCE, and some EU member states to negotiate a ceasefire, stop the fighting and move to the negotiating table. It was quite different from what we have been observing since February 2022 where, after a failed attempt at a direct bilateral negotiation between Ukraine and Russia, hope for any kind of diplomatic talks has largely vanished and has given way to what looks for the time being as a long protected war. In other words, military trumps diplomacy today contrary to the previous conflict in 2014-2015.

JIA: How do you think the External Action Service is positioned to respond to the diplomatic challenges of this particular conflict this time around?

PV: In 2014, the External Action Service was mostly mobilized in two ways: sanctions, as mentioned earlier, and assistance to the Ukrainian government, in terms of humanitarian and micro financial support and also training for police assistance,. But from a purely diplomatic point of view, the EU was never really involved. For one simple reason: from the Russian perspective, the European Union was considered part of the problem and could not therefore be part of the solution. Mediation and negotiation were left to individual member states, namely Germany and France. The EU as such was sidelined. And it remained so once the Minsk agreements were brokered and the Normandy Four, namely Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia, tried to no avail to reach a peace settlement.

Today we are facing a quite different diplomatic game. European Union is much more involved in a conflict that has taken a multi dimensional shape with an overall political dimension where the European Union, at its highest institutional level is playing a major role. Witness for instance, on top of the micro financial or humanitarian assistance, first of all the massive EU military supplies that never existed in 2014, the agreement over the Ukrainian candidacy to the EU membership or the temporary protection status granted to all Ukrainian refugees. The EU is today at the forefront of the political mobilization for Ukraine.This is, for the EU, a completely different political game from the one in 2014 which was much more low profile.

JIA: Is the EU diplomatic response through the EEAS just one part of the broader European response to the past year of war in the war in Ukraine? How should we understand the role that it plays within the continental system of the EU, its member states, the individual sovereign states, and other super- and sub-national entities?

PV: It has been so far a rather successful combination of EU direct assistance and member states’s own support: an illustration of the new approach adopted by the Brussels institutions around the concept of Team Europe. So you have on one side the support provided to Ukraine by the EU right from the start in a highly effective and speedy manner not seen in the past. It took only three days for the European Union to decide to set up military assistance to Ukraine through its European Peace Fund that amounts today to more than 3 billion euros. The temporary protection regime for all Ukrainian refugees moving into the EU was also approved within a few weeks.

At the same time, from their side EU member states also did their homework with their own military supplies, their own humanitarian assistance and also their own diplomatic efforts to deliver the grain deal for the export of Ukrainian food through the Black Sea, the release of military prisoners and the ongoing discussion to ensure the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. All in all, it provides a fine illustration of how EU foreign policy can work when it succeeds in blending together EU and member states contributions.

It is worth noting that it is under pressure and in times of crisis that Europe has been able to upgrade its act just as Europeans have been able under the pressure of the COVID-19 to build up a completely original public health policy which normally pertains to the exclusive competence of member states. One could add to this health initiative the adoption of the 750 billion euros common loan that had been until then an unreachable objective due to the opposition of several member states. The European response to the Ukraine war belongs to the same category of transformation under crisis, a reality already underlined by Jean Monnet in his times. But one that must be treaded with caution: crises can provide a helping hand for major breakthroughs but any substantial transformation of the EU will require time, patience and a more stable political environment to be seriously implemented.