Europe’s Love Affair with Bureaucracy

Why it's not as dysfunctional as you think.


The implementation of the Lisbon Treaty has meant many things to many people, but all seem to agree on one thing: it will bring more bureaucracy.

That’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Take foreign affairs, for example, where the European Union’s new high representative, Lady Catherine Ashton, is busy creating a new diplomatic entity called the European External Action Service (EEAS). She isn’t doing it from scratch. Not only is she drawing many of the personnel from existing national foreign services, but those very same services will remain in place. To confuse matters further, the lines of responsibility among these groups are all very much up in the air. It sounds like a tangled web, and it is — but all this bureaucratic overlap just might give Lady Ashton the leverage she needs to direct Europe’s foreign policy.

There are some precedents that provide a hint as to where Lady Ashton’s efforts may go. National central banks survived after the creation of the European Central Bank. Today they exist mainly to implement its decisions, but their reduced role is not reflected in fewer personnel or resources.

There’s also the common commercial policy, which falls under the purview of the European Commission. The commission represents the European Union in most trade matters before the World Trade Organization. Yet many member states have kept their own WTO missions in Geneva well staffed with trade experts.

Why does Europe need so much official overlap? There is an old adage that the best empires succeed because of large and inefficient bureaucracies whereby political fights are translated into administrative ones. The EU is no different. For all the buzzwords like "streamlining," "efficiency," and "coherence" that emanate from Brussels, the history of the EU demonstrates the opposite. There are important reasons for this bureaucratic mess, and Lady Ashton’s latest job is a good example.

She has three constituencies: national foreign ministries, the Council Secretariat, and the European Commission. All three want to be the primary mover in European foreign policy, yet each knows that no policy can succeed if it is opposed by the other two, or by significant elements within their ranks.

The creation of a new bureaucracy straddling the three will mean a rare opportunity to achieve consensus by horse trading, or simply by default. To the arbiter go the spoils.

The results may not sing, but they may ultimately have the effect of indirectly creating a more consistent EU foreign policy as national governments compete with one another to maximize the leverage afforded to them by the EEAS. This will be reflected in policy formulation, staffing and, of course, budgeting. Ashton’s organization thus has the potential to balance the interests of small countries in a way that doesn’t automatically pit them against France, Germany, and Britain, or some combination of the three, on every issue. As her office amasses expertise, institutional memory and the power of initiative — issuing draft position papers, and the like — so too will national ministries and other entities be forced to react on terms not entirely of their own making.

In the worst case, the EEAS will do little more than sow confusion amid the inevitable bureaucratic clashes. But this needn’t happen if Lady Ashton plays her cards well. She must act soon to enlist support among national governments by promising high standards of accountability in the EEAS. This means the timely provision of information to these governments — which has not been the case, for example, in periodic trade negotiations. She should also work closely with European finance ministers early on in the creation of the EEAS, particularly if an excess of duplication in functions will require budget cuts for national foreign ministries.

But in the end, whatever power Lady Ashton amasses will come largely from her fortunate place on the organizational chart. The increased layers of overlapping bureaucratic will appear chaotic, but the final result may be a new order of things — recasting the way Europe conducts its foreign policy.

Stephanie Hoffmann is a research assistant at the University of Toronto. She has a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management from York University.

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