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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 June 2007, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
How spin muddies EU foreign policy debate
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Javier Solana
Javier Solana: expected new High Representative

Any analysis of the effects on EU foreign policy of the proposed new treaty has to pick its way through a morass of spin and exaggeration.

The treaty will allow some limited but quite important steps towards the encouragement of joint policies in foreign affairs and certainly towards the clearer presentation of those policies.

But the giant leap has not been taken. Foreign policy will still be subject to unanimity in all but a few limited areas. The upgraded "high representative" will have a greater ability to carry out policy, but will not make policy.

There is no intention of allowing in foreign affairs what happens, without complaint, in trade policy, where the EU has to act by law as one, decisions are taken by qualified majority vote and considerable freedom is given to the commissioner for trade.

So decisions such as the British one to join the invasion of Iraq will still be possible in future.

British government warnings

Yet to listen to the British government before the talks was to hear cries of alarm that British independence was threatened and afterwards that such a threat had been triumphantly averted. One wondered why the government had previously agreed to the proposals if they were now seen as such a threat.

On the other side, the anti-EU critics were also crying disaster, and in their case the cries are continuing.

The giant leap has not been taken. Foreign policy will still be subject to unanimity in all but a few limited areas
You can see the tactical process at work on the government side by looking at an e-mail sent out by the Foreign Office to correspondents on the Friday before the summit started last Thursday.

It said of foreign policy: "We will insist on maintaining our ability to conduct our own independent foreign and defence policy and we will of course maintain our Security Council seat."

The Prime Minister Tony Blair followed this up on the Monday by stating to MPs: "We will not agree to something that replaces the role of British foreign policy and our foreign minister."

The problem with these statements is that there was nothing in the proposed treaty that threatened the independent foreign policy of any member state.

The text said: "European decisions relating to the common foreign and security policy shall be adopted by the European Council and the Council unanimously, except in the cases referred to in Part III." These cases are limited in application, and the main one is discussed below. Defence and military affairs were specifically excluded from any majority voting.

As for an end to Britain's Security Council seat, there was and is no such proposal. The only thing that comes close is a provision that if the EU is agreed on a policy at the UN, then the refashioned high representative should present that case.

Mark Mardell
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BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell

The government's aim was plain. It had to come out of these negotiations able to rule out a referendum, which it knew might be lost.

So in some areas (home affairs, the charter of rights) it insisted on opt-outs.

What it did in the foreign policy field was, despite reports that it would veto this or that change, to allow the substance of the previously agreed section to go through but to insist on a declaration being added to make explicit what was already clear from the text - that the EU cannot override a member state over foreign policy.

This declaration says, in part: "...the provisions covering CFSP [common foreign and security policy]...will not affect the existing legal basis, responsibilities, and powers of each Member State in relation to the formulation and conduct of its foreign policy..."

Thus the government will be able to point to the text and say that it has preserved the British position.


The most significant change will be to combine the jobs of the existing high representative for foreign and security policy and the external affairs commissioner. This gives the new high representative (the title "foreign minister" was dropped due to British sensitivities) a seat on the European Commission and the foreign aid cash with which to put money where the policy is.

The representative will also chair meetings of the foreign ministers and control a potentially powerful new EU diplomatic service. So he or she (it will probably be a he, in that the present representative Javier Solana is likely to get the enhanced job when it is established in 2009) will have a bigger profile internationally.

There will also be a permanent President of the European Council, the body made up of heads of state and government. This post will also give the EU a larger presence on the world stage. Do not underestimate the influence of that.

The critics

Critics of the government are not immune to spin either. One of the most active groups is called Open Europe, a business-based think-tank that wants a "looser and more flexible structure" in the EU.

Its post-summit headlines declared that there would be "Majority voting in foreign policy". This is technically correct, in that in some circumstances there could be a vote by qualified majority, but it sounds as if foreign policy is generally subject to voting and simple majority voting at that.

However, in the main such case - voting on a proposal from the high representative - the representative will be allowed to make such a proposal only after a "specific request" from the European Council. And the Council has to act by unanimity, a point not mentioned by Open Europe, even in its detailed explanation.

Open Europe's Director Neil O'Brien told me that his headline should perhaps be amended to "Majority vote in some areas of foreign policy".

Newspapers calling for a referendum rarely pause to give the whole picture. The Sunday Times, for example, declares that it has found in the "small print" a plan for an EU diplomat service. This proposal was in the original constitutional treaty and in normal print.

The paper also announced that the new treaty commits Europe to a "common foreign and security policy". It does, but the commitment is lifted straight from the Maastricht Treaty agreed by Prime Minister John Major.

Successors to Henry Kissinger, who once complained there was no number in Europe for him to call, will still find all this confusing, though there are perhaps fewer numbers now than there were.

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