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Matti Nissinen: EU foreign ministers will meet in Helsinki at a crucial time for the EU’s institutions

EU2019FIMinistry for Foreign Affairs
Publication date 27.8.2019 12.43

From the perspective of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, Finland’s Presidency of the Council coincides with a most interesting point of time.

Should things proceed this autumn as planned, the current Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell will succeed the Italian Federica Mogherini as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. As future head of the European External Action Service, Borrell will have primary responsibility for the effectiveness of the Common Foreign and Security Policy over the coming five years. With a new College of Commissioners to be chosen and a new High Representative to take up office, this is a good moment to re-examine the way things are done: how can the substance and practice of the EU’s common foreign policy be improved?

The aim of the Finnish Presidency is to see that the member states give the forthcoming High Representative a strong mandate to promote the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Yet the High Representative should also be required to maintain close contacts with the member states, be aware of national sensitivities and ensure the transparency of the External Action Service.

Many believe that it is now necessary to agree on official deputising arrangements for the High Representative. One of the alternatives put forward is that member states’ foreign ministers could stand in for the High Representative more often, thereby representing the EU at global level. Such a role was recently assumed by Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto regarding support by the EU for Sudan’s transition, and this proved a positive experience.

It is also important that the High Representative should have a strong role within the European Commission in reconciling the EU’s internal and external policies. The European Union is a unique international actor, with a very broad range of tools at its disposal in comparison with many other operators. It is a strong participant not only in foreign policy but also in policy areas such as trade and development. The potential for the EU to succeed in a global role lies in the seamless interlinking of these policy sectors.

What counts is the political will to act together

The failure of the EU to make full use of its potential has been a problem for some time already. The shaping of the EU’s external action is still sporadic, and disagreements are increasingly common. In the international arena, the EU has often been torn by internal disputes, at a time when action was needed. The threshold for individual member states to block EU action in the field of Common Foreign and Security Policy has become lower and lower, and they feel no remorse for paralysing the functioning of the EU.

Although the fragmentation of a common approach often occurs as the result of disagreements among the member states or their domestic policy considerations, it is essential that the EU should still be able to respond to any external attempts to influence EU action. The purpose of third countries’ attempts to influence the European Union is to deepen the dividing lines within the EU, thereby undermining its capacity for decision-making and, consequently, weakening the implementation of its Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The political will of the EU member states to act together is key to the success of the common foreign policy. In the absence of unity, it is very difficult to conduct foreign policy that requires unanimity. While the EU certainly has potential in its foreign policy, results can only be obtained if joint action is once again perceived as something valuable and decision-makers show their determination. We should also be able to reform the decision-making system, if needed.

In line with its long-standing policy on the EU, Finland is prepared to address the issue of more effective decision-making practices within the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Finland believes that increasing the use of qualified majority voting in the field of Common Foreign and Security Policy would add to the effectiveness and credibility of the EU’s external action. In matters to be decided unanimously, member states could opt for ‘constructive abstention’. This means the action of the entire Union would not be blocked whenever a single member state chooses to be excluded from decision-making and action.

At a time when the international rules-based order and superpower relations are undergoing marked changes, there clearly is a growing demand for a stronger role of the EU. If the EU successfully takes up this challenge, it can become a leading promoter of peace, democracy and human rights in the world.

Gymnich will lay out the foundation for a common foreign policy

At the end of August, EU foreign ministers will gather in Helsinki in an informal meeting known as the Gymnich meeting. The foreign ministers of the Western Balkan countries have also been invited to part of that meeting. 

The name comes from Gymnich Castle in Germany, which hosted the very first informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in 1974. This time, the foreign ministers will meet at Finlandia Hall. During the previous Finnish Presidencies, the Gymnich meetings took place in Saariselkä (1999) and Lappeenranta (2006).

The forthcoming meeting will be chaired by the High Representative, who will also set an agenda for it. The practical arrangements will be the responsibility of the Presidency. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has been preparing this meeting together with its partners for several months.

Due to its informal nature, the Gymnich meeting enables the ministers to hold confidential discussions on topical international issues. Although a ministerial meeting of 28 member states is, by no standard, synonymous with a free-flowing conversation, it provides the ministers with a rare opportunity to have a freer exchange of views and lay a foundation for the EU’s common foreign policy. With promotion of the EU’s unity being a key objective for the Finnish Presidency, Finland is ready to contribute to this dialogue.

Matti Nissinen, Head of the Unit for European Common Foreign and Security Policy at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs