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European Union summit: postponing EU appointments was a wise decision

The European Council summit on July 16 had been expected to produce a new European Union foreign policy chief to replace the outgoing British incumbent, Catherine Ashton, writes Michael Leigh.

In a forthright speech to the European Parliament the day before the summit, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president-elect stated: “The next high representative for Europe’s foreign affairs and security policy will have to be a strong and experienced player to combine national and European tools, and all the tools available in the Commission, in a more effective way than in the past.” Juncker wants the new high representative, who will be double-hatted as Commission vice-president for external relations, to coordinate the foreign policy work of other commissioners. He clearly considers that a senior figure would be most effective in this role.

As heads of government from EU member states met in Brussels, the Ukraine-Russia crisis rumbled on; violent exchanges between Israel and Hamas claimed an increasing number of civilian casualties; and Libya, Egypt, and the EU’s other southern neighbours still grappled with major economic and political problems. Amid such pressing challenges to Europe’s foreign affairs and security environment, the Council’s failure to make nominate a convincing public figure as EU high representative was widely seen as a setback.

Yet the EU’s decision to postpone the nomination until August 30 was wise. This will enable a consensus to emerge among member states concerning suitable candidates for a wider range of leadership positions.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi believes that Italy is entitled to a top EU job, in addition to the presidency of the European Central Bank, after its candidate was passed over for the position of NATO secretary-general in March. At the EU summit, Renzi pressed for the post of high representative to go to his foreign minister, 41-year-old Federica Mogherini, who has been in office since February. Earlier she was a foreign policy expert in Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party.

Mogherini engaged in a flurry of foreign visits before the summit and generated considerable support. But Sweden, Poland, and some Eastern European EU member states found her too accommodating to Russian President Vladimir Putin. A hint that they might push their opposition to a vote in the European Council, a body that normally makes decisions by consensus, was enough to persuade the present Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, that more time and cooler heads were needed to take a balanced decision on a raft of top appointments.

The EU now has six weeks to select a foreign policy chief as part of a broader package of appointments. This will include the presidency of the European Council and of the group of finance ministers that oversee the eurozone. Other positions, such as vice-president for economic and monetary affairs, may be brought into the package to improve the chances of reaching a consensus.

The summit’s other main business was to agree on fresh sanctions against Russia. These new sanctions, which were coordinated with the United States, follow Russia’s failure to heed calls from Brussels and Washington to stop cross-border support for Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Since the summit, the need to limit flows of arms to the separatists has become even more urgent following the tragic shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane over territory controlled by the separatists.

The EU’s new measures target entities as well as individuals, and restrict financial assistance and loans to Russia. They are accompanied by tougher U.S. measures against energy companies run by members of Putin’s coterie. For this reason, the Kremlin’s anger has been mainly directed at Washington. U.S. trade with Russia is barely 10% of the EU’s, which leaves it freer to act, in the view of many Europeans.

Still, it will fall to the EU to palliate any retaliatory economic measures that Moscow takes against Ukraine and Moldova for signing far-reaching agreements with the EU. In the past few days, Putin has tried unsuccessfully to orchestrate such measures within the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. He has met resistance from the other member states — Kazakhstan and Belarus — both of which fear the impact on their economies as well as growing Russian domination. This means that Putin may resort to unilateral Russian trade measures, undermining the credibility of his much vaunted Eurasian Union.

Despite first appearances, this has been a European Council summit that showed most EU leaders in a mature and measured mood. The next meeting on August 30 will likely be much better placed to make considered decisions on the EU’s future leadership.

Sir Michael Leigh is senior adviser to the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series.

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