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The Changing Role of Embassies in EU Member States

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

14 Responses to The Changing Role of Embassies in EU Member States

  1. This kind of posts are of absolute added value – more of this!

  2. Just one question, out of interest: Do you need a special permission to blog in your function as a German diplomat?

  3. avatar Michael Siebert says:

    This publication is part of my work – public diplomacy. No special permission is needed. This would be different if I intended to use publicly not available information that I’ve known through my work.

  4. Certainly embassies exchanged between member states offer all sorts of opportunities to become intimately acquainted with the ‘back story’ of developments within a country. But I think we should also look to reflecting the change in relationship that comes with accession to the EU.
    Should the terminology of ambassadors and embassies not be changed to reflect the fact that EU membership modifies the nature of the bilateral relationships? Why not the German Permanent Representative to the UK and the FRG Permanent Representation to the UK?

  5. avatar DOCM says:

    The debate on this issue is often based on a misunderstanding viz. that somehow the Member States have ceased to be nation states within the European Union. Apart from the fact that the Lisbon Treaty emphasises that this is not the case, the founders of Europe, while they may have dreamed of an eventual ‘United States of Europe’, also never lost sight of the fact that what they were dealing with were relations between states. These relations had previously been ‘unruly’ but were now to take place in a ‘controlled environment’ i.e. within a legal treaty framework governed by the rule of law.

    This analysis applies even where competences have been ceded exclusively to the EU e.g. common commercial policy and the euro.

    Thus, the Embassies of the EU countries have totally different roles depending on whether they are within the EU or outside it. In the first instance, they are responsible for the conduct of relations between states in parallel with the conduct of those relations within the the decision-making apparatus of the EU (even if this may only involve arranging phone calls between two Prime Ministers). In the second, they can usefully cooperate in implementing the competences that have been ceded to the EU, which is where the European External Action Service comes in.

    However, the main political motivation behind the creation of the EEAS is the need to try and coordinate two distinct areas of policy, that with a supranational dimension (i.e. where the EU can adopt legislation impacting directly on the legal systems and citizens of the Member States) and that jealously retained by the Member States: the Common Foreign and Security Policy. (If anyone doubts that this is the case, they are referred to Declaration 13 on the CFSP attached to the Lisbon Treaty).

    It remains to be seen how the new arrangements will work out and whether they will reduce the need for a bilateral presence of Member States in Third Countries. I doubt it. At best they will improve the relationship between the local representative of the EU (i.e. the head of the Commission office) and bilateral Ambassadors.

    The idea that the “external relations” of the EU, broadly defined, will become anything other than the present mishmash is, to my mind, misplaced. This is in the nature of the beast. The real surprise is that 27 countries can succeed in getting all their ducks in a row so often.

  6. avatar DOCM says:

    P.S. I forgot to mention that helping to get those ducks in a row is a vital function of bilateral Embassies within the EU. A suitable topical example would be the position to be adopted by the EU at the September meeting of the G20.

  7. avatar Vicente de Lisboa says:

    Changing terminology always gets many people irate, and brings no real added value. I say keep embassies as such, especialy since in legal terms that’s exactly what they still are.

    Still, mighty interesting subject this. And I dare ask – are you worried or motivated by the chalanges of the EEAS-National Diplomacy Services dynamic? How are the later (at least the German) planning to both shape the EEAS positions and avoid getting on eachothers toes when the positions are different?

  8. Pingback: Embassies and “Talking to Our Enemies” | Global Engagement

  9. The impact (or not) of the Lisbon Treaty on embassies in third countries with the creation of the EEAS seems to me an entirely different strand of discussion from this one which is dealing with intra-EU diplomacy. But just as worthy of discussion!
    Something further to ponder on – the exchange of ambassadors between the UK and members of the Commonwealth has the symbolic distinction of being an exchange of ‘High Commissioners’ and embassies take the label ‘High Commissions’. I think this sends a message about the (intended) different quality of relationship that binds the UK and other members of the Commonwealth – and without any modification to the Vienna Convention convering diplomatic priviledges and immunities. And not a bad model for exchange of diplomats between EU member states capitals…

  10. avatar DOCM says:

    I obviously agree with the view expressed by Richard Whitman that we are dealing with two different strands of discussion as this was the principal point made in my post. However, I do not think that the two can be disentangled that easily. The purpose of the exercise, after all, is to agree a common policy in terms of content and possible joint action in respect of particular ‘external relations’ issues. These can be a mix of the two competences that I identified. (Burma at the present time would be a case in point).

    This may involve simultaneously Embassies both within the EU and in Third Countries. But the institutional framework is the decisive one. Any Member States can suggest a decision in the context of CFSP and have it adopted at short notice. Not so issues involving competences ceded to the EU in a supranational manner e.g. legislation underpinning sanctions. The institutional procedures with regard to the latter are explicit and will, almost invariably, involve a formal proposal by the Commission and consultation of the European Parliament. Indeed, the Lisbon Treaty will greatly increase the involvement of the EP.

    Much of the academic comment makes too light of these fundamental differences as, indeed, did the drafters of the Lisbon Treaty in assuming that the creation of two posts – President of the European Council and High Commissioner for the CFSP – will resolve them. The position of the latter will be particularly problematical as he/she will be expected to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds (and their respective champions in the new diplomatic service).

  11. avatar Vicente de Lisboa says:

    Different strand indeed – but as mentioned, they’re entangled. After all, the Union being what it is, anything the EEAS does or says will be a “reader’s digest” of national diplomatic positions.

    Ence, these EEAS positions could (shuold?) be prepared with the help of the intra-EU diplomats, one one hand, and delivered in a dance with national foreign diplomats on the other.

    How are diplomats dealing (or preparing to deal) with this is what I was wondering.

  12. I don’t disagree that a sharp distinction cannot be drawn between national and EU FP. However, I do think that there is a relative neglect of academic study of the role and function of embassies of member states in other member states. I did some work on this 15 or so years ago looking at how the structure and composition of member state embassies in the UK had changed since UK accession to the then EEC. What was fascinating was (as you would expect) the decline of functional roles dealing with issues of Community competence. I’m not aware of much recent literature on the topic – but others may be aware of recent studies?

  13. avatar DOCM says:

    I do not think that there will be any simple solution for the reason that I outlined, that is to say, the unwillingness of Member States to deal with CFSP in any context other than the inter-governmental i.e. they retain both complete freedom of national action and, indeed, the capacity to veto any action by the EU.

    The Lisbon Treaty makes a valiant effort to try and bridge this unbridgeable gap by dressing it up in various procedures. The most obvious example is Article 215 TFEU dealing with restrictive measures where the Council is to act on the basis of a qualified majority “on a joint proposal from the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the Commission”.

    When one thinks about it, is this not a bit daft? The HR will also be a Vice-President of the Commission which, as a college, must takes its decisions collectively and act by simple majority. Which hat does he wear? That of the Council or the Commission?

    Good decision-making depends on a system of checks and balances – to avoid precipitate action – and the possibility of judicial review. Neither applies in the case of the CFSP. But where it really matters i.e. where actions might hit Member States in the pocket, the Member States have seen fit to have a more elaborate procedure (but which does not include the European Parliament in this context).

    In short, the speed at which “foreign policy” positions are arrived at will bear a direct correlation to their substantive content in terms of action by the Member States, either nationally or through the EU. It is difficult to see any arenas other than (i) the four main institutions (European Council, Council, Commission and European Parliament) and (ii) the usual back channels between capitals for such decision-making. It is in respect of the latter that Embassies can continue to play their part. The EEAS can, undoubtedly, play a useful coordinating role.

  14. avatar DOCM says:

    If anyone is contemplating a study on the role and function of EU missions within the EU and/or the EEAS , there could be no better place to start than the masterful report produced by the House of Lords: “The Lisbon Treaty: an impact assessment”. N.B. 5mb and 300 pages.

    In a recent comment on the judgement of the German Constitutional Court in relation to the Lisbon Treaty, Edmund Stoiber voiced the view that the conduct of EU policy should be moved from the Foreign Ministry to national ministries, given that “80% of German legislation came from Brussels”. (For a debunking of the latter myth, you are referred to Nosemonkey’s excellent blog).

    While this would be a rather extreme solution, there is no denying that that the role of Embassies, and their home Foreign Ministries, has been radically altered in respect of thos areas of supranational activity where the decisions are taken by home civil servants in the context of their involvement with the EU. Different solutions have been found in each capital, the most common being to shift the real responsibility from the Foreign Ministry to the office of the Prime Minister. This has not been a good development. Such offices are good at running domestic affairs, very bad in regard to other matters. A beneficial side effect of the creation of the post of President of the European Council is that it will help pull the carpet from under this unwelcome detour in European integration and return the responsibility to where it belongs viz. the Minister charged with conducting the “foregn affairs” of his/her country.

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