Ripples Across the Pond: The Impact of the European External Action Service in Washington

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

April 28, 2010

It is easy to see why Washington might not be the capital where the EAS will have the greatest impact. Each of the Union’s 27 member states are represented here, and it is probably the last place where they will be willing to cede power to the EU Delegation. Yet if bilateral links are set to remain strong, it is not only for reasons of sovereignty or prestige. Contrary to what is discussed in, say, Singapore or New Delhi, a large part of the diplomatic agenda in Washington deals with security issues, a domain in which member states, especially the larger ones, will retain their importance for years to come.

American diplomats are more likely to feel the change when they are sent abroad, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Because the EU is becoming the most relevant interlocutor for many smaller capitals, whether for trade or development aid, and because many EU countries will choose to be represented by the EU delegation rather than maintain their own embassy, American ambassadors will increasingly see their reinforced EU counterpart as a senior partner.

All of this does not mean that the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty will have no impact in the US. After all, the post-Lisbon balance has tilted in favour of member states, which will lend credibility to the EAS. And tighter European coordination will ultimately flow from the weekly meeting of the 27 countries in the same offices – that of the EU delegation on K Street – as well as from the streamlined institutions in Brussels. It is also notable that Hillary Clinton has already granted Catherine Ashton consideration and attention, thereby helping to overcome her difficult initial position, and establishing her as an important partner. As for the European Parliament, which flexed its muscles by rejecting the SWIFT bank-data sharing agreement, it has just opened an office in DC to increase awareness of its reinforced role in the new institutional setting.

At the end of the day, though, the overall impact of the Lisbon Treaty changes will depend on the level of interest that the White House grants to Europeans. If the scant interest President Barack Obama has shown in Europe remains the same, there is little chance that a virtuous circle will kick in, despite Europe’s best efforts.