What the hell do we need embassies between EU member states for today? You can hear this question from finance ministers and ordinary citizens alike.
Clearly, the role of bilateral embassies between EU member states has been affected by European integration and the global technological revolution. Internet resources, secure e-mail and video-conferencing have enabled instant access to a huge amount of information from everywhere. More frequent EU meetings and low-cost airlines have multiplied government-to-government contacts and negotiations on ever more issues. Heads of state and government as well as national ministries deal directly with their foreign counterparts to a degree unimaginable only ten or twenty years ago.
So, have good old bilateral embassies become redundant within the EU? Are diplomats overpaid dinosaurs in the European village?
As a member of the Political Department of the German Embassy in London, you wouldn’t expect me to dig my own grave, of course. But I can assure you that we are certainly not short of work! The role of embassies in Europe has changed remarkably in recent years. But it is still hugely important. Let me give you three examples.
First, the embassy is in constant, direct and intensive dialogue with British government officials, members of parliament, think tanks, academia, NGOs, lobby groups, journalists, fellow-diplomats and many more. These regular contacts can create mutual trust. Scanning each other’s internet websites cannot. Trust is the basis for solid bilateral relations and for a functioning EU as a whole.
Second, embassies today put more emphasis on “public diplomacy” – the interaction with civil society and institutions in culture, media, business and research. So diplomats spend considerable time at conferences, workshops, meetings and well, yes, receptions, in order to proactively promote German political views and foster an accurate perception of modern Germany.
Third, the nature of the expertise embassies in EU member states provide to their governments has changed. It makes no sense for diplomats to compete with worldwide media news coverage. To really make a difference for their national capitals, diplomats have to analyse the factors behind political decisions, such as the political culture of the host country, the mindset of politicians, media pressure and lobby interests. They have to talk to the opposition as well, the “government in waiting” with which government officials back home normally do not have contacts. Embassies also need to follow and report on the ‘bigger picture’ – the host country’s broader political and socio-economic development – as their colleagues in various departments back home are often focused on the specific issues of their day-to-day work. Visiting politicians and senior officials usually seek such background information before talks with their counterparts. All this can only be done by people who live and work in the host country. At the German Embassy in London, these are not only colleagues from the Foreign Office but specialists from various German government departments as well.
A final word: the Treaty of Lisbon currently being in limbo, the future of European decision making remains blurred for the time being. Germany hopes the Treaty will eventually be ratified in all 27 member states, thus making the EU more democratic and more efficient. The Treaty would create a European foreign service – the so-called “European External Action Service” (EEAS) – comprising civil servants from both EU institutions and member states. With this new project taking shape, relations between the EEAS and national embassies of EU countries, both within and outside the Union, will be redefined. But whatever the outcome, diplomats will continue to facilitate close and trusting bilateral and multilateral relations within the EU.
By Michael Siebert, German Embassy, London