Writing in The Financial Times today, former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski expresses his frustration with the fact “Europe remains unable to influence events or bend history to its interests to a degree that reflects its status as the largest economy.” He cites the EU’s failure to pursue a coherent and effective foreign policy with regards to Syria, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Libya or the refugee crisis, and particularly the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where France and Germany have taken the lead on behalf of the EU. Of course he is correct that the EU’s response to these problems has been far from coherent or effective, however, it is far from clear what exactly his alternative is:

We need to go back to the rules created in the Lisbon treaty. Case by case, member states should calculate whether a given issue is better resolved by them alone, or by the EU as a whole. If they decide upon the latter, then they had better get behind European policy no matter what the domestic pressures… We should go back to basics and empower our president and our high representative to do their jobs.

Radosław Sikorski writing for The Financial Times, 17 August 2015

Leaving aside the fact that Sikorski himself was happy to play a very active role in negotiations between the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition before the crisis escalated, clearly, it would be desirable for the EU to agree a common policy on Russia and execute it accordingly. However, simply asserting this will not make it happen.

For a start, Sikorski seems to imply that member states are ignoring the Lisbon Treaty and circumventing the High Representative. However, this is missing the point – they are not ignoring a consensus at the EU level in order to push their own agendas, they are doing so precisely because there is no European policy to get behind. As we have pointed out many times, due to their different cultures and historical experiences, EU member states have different and sometimes competing interests and approaches to foreign policy. It is not enough for member states to decide whether a given issue would be better resolved at the EU level, they also have to agree what the ultimate objective is and how it ought to be achieved, and this is where it gets problematic.

Putting in place an elaborate bureaucratic structure at the EU level in the form of the EEAS has not miraculously consolidated 28 foreign policies into one. This is not a new development linked to the financial crisis – as Sikorski argues – it has always been the case. Where EU member states can agree both on what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it, the EEAS can facilitate this process – as we have seen recently with the Iran negotiations. On Russia however this is far from the case as we showed with our Dove-Hawk scale last year:

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Ultimately, it took for the downing of flight MH17 by the Russian backed separatists to galvanise member states to adopt relatively limited sanctions on Russia. While member states recognise the need to respond to Russian aggression, there is no strategy for how to compel Russia to leave Eastern Ukraine (much less give up Crimea) and no long-term vision for what relations the EU should have with Russia and Ukraine (should it eventually become a full member or not?)

Therefore, Sikorski’s rhetoric about “empowering” European Council President Donald Tusk and High Representative Federica Mogherini rings hollow – the problem lies at the national level. It is far from clear how he thinks the objections of the likes of Hungary’s Victor Orban or Greece’s Alexis Tsipras can be overridden – short of scrapping vetoes in this area, for which there is rightly very little desire.

Moreover, while this might make EU foreign policy more effective, it would not be very democratic. It is worth remembering that while Poland and the Baltic states want a tougher EU line on Russia in face of opposition from the Mediterranean bloc, it is these countries that strongly pushed back against the Commission’s plans for mandatory burden sharing for asylum seekers. Clearly, giving up sovereignty over foreign policy is a double-edged sword.

As frustrating as the outcomes can sometimes be, short of overriding fundamental principles of national sovereignty and democracy, there is little more that can be done at the EU level.