Empire Building Under The Radar: How Europe Uses Its External Action Service

Who is the biggest power in the world? The US has the biggest military capacity, and China is being eyed as an economic giant, but few see Europe as a force to be reckoned with.

The European Union is often seen as ‘only’ a raggedy bunch of bickering and powerless states. But that is not how the EU likes to see itself.

From its humble origins as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) through the European Economic Community it has grown into a powerful economic union of 28 member states with enough clout to make a difference in the world.

In his book ‘The European Superpower’, professor John McCormick argues that the United States is blind to the fact that it has been overtaken by this cluster of wealthy European nations that often act and function as one. Europe has become a superpower, and with it, it feels the need to assert itself on the international scene.

Nations assert themselves via their Foreign Offices, so Europe felt it needed ambassadors and diplomats to enter the international scene. There was one small problem though: until the Lisbon Treaty, member states still had part of their sovereignty intact, and had a voice through their own foreign ministries. No European country wants to openly admit that their embassies are as good as obsolete, and none wanted to be superseded in such an obvious and blatant way. Europe had to think of a different solution to create its own Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so the European External Action Service was created as soon as the Lisbon Treaty went into effect. The EEAS was officially born on 1 December 2010. A rose is still a rose by any other name.

The EEAS is an organisation consisting of 3,600 staff and about 140 so-called delegations around the world. Its headquarters is in Brussels, and it is led by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, or: the High Representative in short.  Baroness Catherine Ashton, a British labour politician, held this title until last year. Italian politician Federica Mogherini holds the current post.

A lot has been written about Catherine Ashton, much of it very critical. To some, she has been a laughing stock for her lack of experience when she started the job. She entered the stage with a plea for help to her European peers to set up the a new team for the fledgling EEAS, and was subsequently given some very bright and experienced spokesmen. If we want to understand how the EEAS likes to assert itself on the international stage, we need to take a look at two of these advisers and end up by asking: who is really the most influential person to wield this powerful tool for the EU?

Lutz Güllner

Lutz Güllner, a German national, studied political science and international relations at the Free University of Berlin and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. He became a a public affairs consultant in Brussels and was soon appointed as the EU’s Trade Strategy Unit’s Deputy Head. Today he works at the European Commission's Directorate General for Trade.

Güllner is basically the mouthpiece for the EU-US trade negotiations, and he is very active to persuade both the nations and the global media that the TTIP agreement is the best thing since sliced bread for everyone involved:

Güllner confirms that the most difficult debates are taking stage in Germany and Austria, and that has already prompted a new approach to communication.

“Ten years ago, when we launched trade agreements, there was no debate. People wanted to know about the macro-economic impacts and the value of the agreements. With TTIP that has changed because people are asking more questions about the real impact, they are much more defensive and they want to know about the risks and the opportunities, they don’t want the general figure but they want more and more real life examples,” Güllner continued, adding that the Commission has adapted to the debate.

However, adapting to the new public opinion ecosystem is not enough. Giving examples, explaining what the European Commission wants to get out of the negotiations and what that means for different constituencies, business, the public at large and consumers is not enough. Being active on social media and organise town hall meetings across Europe to explain and engage is not enough. 

However, reframing politician’s and public opinion is not the only thing Güllner does. During his time with Catherine Ashton he had the task of persuading existing and potential international trade partners to start seeing things the European way. All Ashton had to do was to finalise his negotiations with a handshake and a press op. Güllner’s power and authority can sometimes be gleaned from small snippets in media he has no sway over, like in Belarus, where he strongly condemned their stance on controlling online activities:

…this new presidential decree is going to further restrict freedom of speech and freedom of media in Belarus after it takes forces, Guellner says. The EU regards this issue as an important step in a wrong direction and hopes the Belarusian authorities will review it. The Union expresses its concern over new restrictions of freedom, including freedom of speech, especially at the moment when the European Union is seeking cooperation with Belarus.   

Notice that it wasn’t Ashton, but Güllner who uttered this thinly-veiled threat that he wanted freedom to influence public opinion in exchange for lucrative trade deals with Belarus.

Perhaps even more telling are some of the reactions from nations who have been approached by the EU to enter into trade agreements. Negotiations over a trade deal involving biofuels with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru started off harmlessly enough, but soon took on a different twist:

[Camillo] Tovar [Latin American Association of Development Promotion Organizations] considered that the EU had had a “change of focus” in the negotiations of its agreement with Latin America, even though “previously the central points were promotion of democracy, human rights, political dialogue and development”, and “trade was a complementary element”.

“Now the reverse is true”, Tuvo remarked, “trade interests are the focal point of the negotiations”.

Other examples of this style of negotiating can be found in Güllner’s dealings with Sri Lanka. The EU produced a report over human rights issues, insisting that further investigations should be carried out, after which Güllner declared:

 "The report comes to the conclusion … that Sri Lanka is in breach of its GSP Plus commitments," EU spokesperson for trade, Lutz Güllner, said soon after the report was released. "We will now consult with Member States on whether to prepare a proposal with a view to temporarily suspending these additional trade benefits."

To which the acerbic reply came:

The minister had previously said that the government would not open its doors to any investigation and looked at such a move as an infringement on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. 

"We have every reason to protest vehemently against the threatened use of GSP Plus as ‘a powerful weapon’ against our country for any purpose whatsoever," he said.   

There are numerous other examples of the EEAS using this carrot-and-stick approach, which doesn’t always receive positive reactions. All the more reason to throw every known trick of persuasion into the foray, and who better to do that than communication experts like Lutz Güllner and his successor.

Lutz Güllner resigned his post in 2010, and went on to engage in ‘more interesting work’ at the European Commission's Directorate General for Trade, where he is now Head of the Unit for Information, Communication and Civil Society. His successor Michael Mann, is equally suited to the task of wooing, cajoling, and blackmailing nation states to trade their sovereignty for the pleasures of financial gain from Europe.

Catherine Ashton has quietly faded away now according to the Wall Street Journal:

Ms. Ashton has pretty much faded from the scene. Two western officials involved in the talks said they had not heard a peep from Ms. Ashton since Nov. 24 by email, telephone or otherwise. Ms. Ashton declined a request to comment.  

As of last year, there is a new High Representative: Federica Mogherini. With Michael Mann’s skilled support, she has hit the ground running if we believe all the news items about her role in the negotiations with Iran. She certainly appreciates where their priorities lie:

Twitter has proven to be a revolutionary social network even in politics. It is an extraordinary channel of diplomacy and of communication. That’s why with Michael Mann and the Strategic Communications Division, we have been working, since the very beginning of my mandate, on making Twitter one of the fundamental tools of our diplomacy. - Federica Mogherini 

Mann, a former spokesman for Neil Kinnock, is perhaps even more interesting than his predecessor. Press TV claims:

A report says Michael Mann, the spokesman for EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton, is a “senior American psychological warfare officer.” 

Being the spokesman on the P5+1 negotiating team indicates that Mann is an information outlet channelling all the data from the talks for the global public opinion. 

The means of information dissemination now lies in the hands of US agents and not European negotiators, the report said. 

According to the report, Mann worked as a senior American psychological warfare officer in Iraq and has had a key role in creating political and media controversies against the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and certain regional states. 

In his book, Professor John McCormick draws the conclusion that Europe might be a superpower, but it doesn’t threaten or cajole. Perhaps he needs take a good look at the EEAS. The title of ‘Spokesman for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’ probably provides the best starting point to see exactly how the EEAS is used as a tool for empire building.