Page last updated at 13:03 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 14:03 UK

EU eyes bigger global role

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

A "Yes" supporter draped in the Irish flag beside graffiti at Dublin Castle, 3 October 2009
The hope among supporters of the Lisbon Treaty is that new posts will enable the EU to speak more clearly on world affairs

The 'Yes' vote by Irish voters on the Lisbon Treaty has brought forward the prospect that the European Union might play a greater role in world affairs.

There are two provisions in the treaty which might make this possible. These are for a permanent president of the European Council and a beefed-up foreign policy representative.

The hope among supporters of the treaty is that these posts will enable the EU to speak more clearly and coherently on major world issues.

The fear among critics is that this will go too far and take away the role and influence of national governments.

Jean-Claude Juncker
Prime Minister Juncker is a possible runner from the right

However, it can only go so far, because national vetoes remain over joint EU-wide foreign policy and security decisions - unlike trade, where member states pool their powers by majority voting if necessary.

So even a powerful new president could not speak for the EU as a whole if it was divided, as it was over the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But the negotiations with Iran, for example, show how things could develop.

Three EU member states - Great Britain, France and Germany - work alongside the present EU foreign policy representative, thereby enabling individual governments to retain their independence of view while combining together for greater effect.

President's impact

The president would chair summit meetings of the heads of state and government - the European Council. He or she would be elected by the council by qualified majority and would not need the approval of the European Parliament.

The term of office is set at two-and-a-half years initially, followed by a similar period on re-election. A qualified majority vote could also sack the president.

At the moment, the office is held by the head of state or government whose country has the six-monthly revolving presidency.

Six months is hardly time for anyone to say much, let alone do much.

Clearly, a full-time president would have far greater impact internally and externally in terms of setting agendas and speaking out.

Bertie Ahern - former Irish prime minister
Wolfgang Schussel - Austrian chancellor
Carl Bildt - Swedish foreign minister
Jan Peter Balkenende - Dutch prime minister
Jean-Claude Juncker - Luxembourg's prime minister
Tony Blair - former British prime minister

Much depends on who would get the job. An outspoken president could make a big impact. Someone quieter might be sidelined by national leaders.

It seems you have to have been a prime minister or at least a foreign minister to fit the bill, but there would be no shortage of candidates.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair carries baggage from the Iraq war but would give the EU a prominent voice on the world stage.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker is a possible runner from the right, not well-known internationally but experienced in EU negotiations.

Former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has a good reputation in economic affairs and for helping to reach the Northern Ireland agreement, but he is from a smaller country and some might want a bigger hitter.

Others possibilities include former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and former Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen.

Money power

The other more powerful post proposed is that of the so-called high representative. There is one already: Javier Solana, who is very active but perhaps not known much to the European public.

Lord Patten thinking during an interview in November 2008
Lord Patten is outspoken on world affairs

The new holder would chair the meetings of foreign ministers and combine not only the right to speak and lead for the EU on agreed policies but would additionally administer the multi-billion euro aid budget and would have a seat on the European Commission.

The power to hand out money would inevitably increase the power of the post.

In the original constitutional proposals this position was called the foreign minister but Britain, for one, felt that gave too much away to the EU and in the treaty the name reverted to high representative.

This foreign policy chief would have his or her own diplomatic service, building on the EU representatives already present across the world.

This again has raised worries among some national foreign offices about a reduction in their power over time. It is not yet clear how important this service will become, but it certainly has the potential to become very much so.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier - ousted German foreign minister
Chris Patten - former British commissioner
Olli Rehn - Finnish EU commissioner

As with the president, there would be limits on what the high representative could do, given the sensitivities of some governments in foreign affairs.

One potential delicate area would be the so-called "enhanced co-operation" available if nine or more member states agree. This would be extended to foreign affairs and security under Lisbon, raising the prospect of a fast-track group.

Those wanting closer military ties might also get into what is called structured co-operation. Where would the high representative position him or herself in those cases?

There might also be rivalries with the president on big issues.

Mr Solana is leaving soon anyway, and whoever replaces him would be well placed to take on the larger role.

Names mentioned include Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is losing his job as German foreign minister after the elections, Carl Bildt of Sweden, Finnish EU commissioner Olli Rehn and former British Commissioner Chris Patten.

The game is nearly on.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific