From his office high above Washington Circle, the European Union’s new ambassador to the United States enjoys a sweeping vista over Foggy Bottom, Georgetown and beyond. The European Union Delegation (as the EU’s de facto embassy here is called) upgraded to its sleek new green-certified, Italian-designed headquarters in March, awaiting the formal confirmation of its ambassador. Since presenting his credentials to President Obama on Aug. 10, João Vale de Almeida has officially taken up his duties as the first EU ambassador to the United States since the Lisbon Treaty entered into force Dec. 1, 2009.
In an interview just hours before meeting Obama, Vale de Almeida — a Portuguese national, former senior European Commission official and assistant to its president, José Manuel Barroso — told The Washington Diplomat that he was eager to begin work. “We have a big agenda for the next months and years,” he said.
Yet the office Vale de Almeida inhabits is much different, in its duties and mandate, as well as its physical location, from the one his predecessor John Bruton left at the end of last October. With the Lisbon Treaty now in effect, the EU has been given new legal footing, enhancing the 27-member bloc’s ability to act more cohesively in foreign affairs and security matters. Vale de Almeida’s main mission, and his most challenging one, will be to communicate these changes to the American people, and to the Obama administration.
Under the best of circumstances, Vale de Almeida’s assignment would not be easy. “The EU is a strange animal, and the Treaty of Lisbon is not easy to understand,” he admitted. “The new system is at its beginnings. So I see my role very much as a facilitator of the understanding of the [European] Union.”
Embattled but Integral Partners
Mutual understanding between Europeans and Americans is perhaps needed now more than ever. In the 21st-century globalized world, the U.S.-EU partnership is constantly being tested as attentions are diverted to more dynamic, but less stable relationships. With China, India, Brazil, Turkey and other emerging economies asserting themselves on the world stage, while conflicts continue to rage in the Middle East and South Asia, American and European policymakers alike are focused on navigating this complex new multi-polar landscape.
At the same time, economic woes on both sides of the Atlantic, from the Greek debt implosion and euro zone crises, to sluggish growth and pervasive unemployment, mean that domestic anxieties demand political precedence.
Yet the transatlantic relationship remains one of the deepest in the world — historically, economically and socially. Although seemingly relegated to the sidelines of foreign policy by recent U.S. administrations, America’s bond with Europe remains unparalleled in providing inherent stability to the world order.
Vale de Almeida echoed that sentiment to President Obama. “The emergence of new powers has led to predictions that transatlantic relations will be less important in the future, but this view overlooks the enormous stock we have vested in one another,” he wrote in a letter to Obama before his credentialing ceremony.
“I believe the EU and U.S. have a longstanding, solid relationship. But I also believe that given today’s world challenges, there is more that we can do together,” the ambassador elaborated in his interview with The Diplomat. “And I’m here to contribute to that. I think we have solid foundations for what we want to do. The first one is that our economies are very much interlinked, our citizens are in constant exchange, we have common values, many of us share European origins, and share largely the same culture.
“At the same time we are facing common challenges: the economy, foreign policy, climate change, you name it, and there is certainly room for us to find convergent solutions.”
Communicating that convergence in a noisy world is Vale de Almeida’s top priority, he told The Diplomat.
“The main challenge in any international relationship is misunderstanding or miscommunication. History proves that a number of problems were created by this kind of situation. And I think it’s the role of any ambassador to limit, if not abolish, any risk of misunderstanding, of miscommunication, between two partners,” he explained. “And I will develop all my skills to try to avoid that.”
Extraordinary skill and tact will indeed be necessary. No sooner had the new ambassador been confirmed in the Oval Office ceremony than he faced his first backlash from the interviews he had granted earlier in the day.
British newspapers latched onto Vale de Almeida’s comments that he would be “leading the show” when member states had a common position, using it to stoke fears that the United Kingdom may lose its distinct voice in international affairs. “The prospect of an EU official speaking for the UK to its most important ally has angered eurosceptics, who said it shows Britain’s waning influence,” wrote the Telegraph.
The dustup is an early indicator of the delicate balancing act Vale de Almeida will have to perform in exerting his authority. He must appear confident in the new powers the Lisbon Treaty has given him, without usurping power from individual member states and their embassies. For the record, Vale de Almeida’s job is to advocate common EU foreign policy positions without interfering in member nations’ bilateral relations with the United States. In reality, this means he must practice careful diplomacy not only between the European Union and the United States, but also among beefed-up EU institutions and wary member states.
Vale de Almeida in fact attracted controversy from the moment his appointment was announced, with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt complaining about the lack of transparency in choosing a career EU bureaucrat for such a high-profile posting (to replace the more well-known Bruton, a former Irish prime minister). The “head of the delegation in Washington should be a person with experience from a high political post — for obvious reasons,” said Bildt.
Others also questioned if cronyism was involved in the appointment of a close aide to European Commission President Barroso, and whether that would impact Vale de Almeida’s loyalties. Officially, the EU Delegation says its ambassador in Washington “represents European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, under the authority of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.”
In answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question — that if he wanted to phone Europe, who would he call — Vale de Almeida has quipped that Kissinger could now call him. But who does Vale de Almeida call in Europe? Barroso, Van Rompuy or Ashton?
Fragile New EU Footing
It’s no easy task explaining the mechanisms of the EU, let alone who’s in charge, given that no one person or entity heads up the bloc. The EU has three distinct decision-making institutions — the European Parliament, Council of the European Union, and the European Commission. Ever since its inception in 1993, the EU has walked a perpetual tightrope in projecting its unified authority without infringing on the sovereignty of its 27 member states.
Even the EU’s “embassy” in Washington is not called an embassy — it’s the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, which has been simplified from the equally cumbersome moniker of Delegation of the European Commission to the United States, the mission’s name prior to the Lisbon Treaty.
The landmark treaty is intended to bring clarity and cohesion to the bureaucratic bloc — most importantly streamlining the EU’s foreign relations. The goal is to unify the EU’s external representation, create a new EU diplomatic corps, and give the bloc a “single voice” in international affairs — although many key details have yet to be ironed out. But the post-Lisbon EU, its architects hope, will possess the political muscle to match its economic might.
To do that, Lisbon combined the two former chief foreign affairs positions into a single position that will be the EU’s de facto foreign minister — dubbed the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and occupied by former British Labour politician and Trade Commissioner Lady Catherine Ashton.
The Lisbon Treaty created an additional powerful post, president of the European Council, which had previously been held by one member state at a time on a rotating six-month basis. The new “permanent” president, appointed by the member states for a two-and-a-half-year term, is tasked with providing leadership and continuity to the European Council, which sets the overall political direction of the EU. But the new president, former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, must share the stage with another powerful president, Barroso of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU. A deft political operator, Barroso has been actively seeking to advance the European Commission, which he’s headed since 2004, and not be eclipsed by the new posts.
Meanwhile, to support the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, the treaty called for the creation of a European External Action Service, or EEAS. This new diplomatic corps would be composed of staff from the European Commission, European Union Council, as well as the national foreign services of EU member states. The EEAS will eventually convert the EU’s 138 foreign missions around the world into EU delegations empowered to speak on behalf of the whole union. In the past, the missions’ main job was to implement EU projects and channel information back and forth to EU institutions. However, the treaty left open the crucial nitty-gritty of protocols, funding and recruitment for the bloc’s revamped Foreign Service structure.
It has thus fallen to Ashton to build the EEAS. This she must do while representing the EU abroad as its foreign minister, contending with Barroso and Van Rompuy, the 27 member states, as well as the newly fortified European Parliament. Her job, declared a senior EU official before it began, is “nearly impossible.”
She has nonetheless approached it with resolve. On July 26, she achieved a notable victory when the member states officially gave their backing to the creation of a unified EEAS. The following day, in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Ashton trumpeted the endorsement.
“The value of the EAS will lie in its being able to bring together the many levers of influence that the European Union has — economic and political, plus civil and military crisis management tools — in support of a single political strategy,” she wrote. “More than any other actor in the world today, the EU will be able to mobilize such a wide a range of instruments, with the weight and legitimacy of 27 democratic countries behind it. This is not, as some critics say, a grab for power; but it is, unashamedly, a grab for effectiveness.”
Ashton is now trying to work out the specifics of personnel and budgeting to get her diplomatic service up and running by the start of December. Details are gradually emerging. Current French Ambassador to Washington Pierre Vimont has been tapped as the first secretary-general of the EEAS, Ashton’s “number two.” Numerous other high-level positions, some in Brussels and some in EU delegations around the world, have been advertised. Ashton has declared her intention to hire “the best and the brightest” for the EEAS. Given the attractive compensation EU diplomats can receive, and the prestige associated with the new service, the number of applicants has far exceeded the number of openings, according to a member of the Washington EU Delegation.
Already though, the new diplomatic service is running into problems. Europe’s powerhouse nations appear to winning the lion’s share of plumb postings, sparking complaints from some EU members that Eastern Europeans and others are being overlooked in favor of the union’s older Western members like France and Germany.
“We are deeply disappointed,” Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar, a former ambassador in Washington, recently told journalists. “We expected more transparent decisions and that geographic balance would be taken into account, in particular for those states like Slovenia which have no presence at all in the EU’s foreign institutions.”
To that end, not everyone’s convinced the Lisbon vision for a more streamlined and effective EU can be fulfilled without running into serious impediments. At a time when member states are tightening their belts for instance, it’s unlikely that the EEAS will get the kind of funding its most ambitious proponents feel is necessary.
Skeptics also question whether selecting staff members from the EU’s three decision-making institutions and combining them into a single, evolving service with a not-yet-established modus operandi will exactly qualify as “streamlining.” The result could be bureaucratic turf wars that are a fact of life in Brussels officialdom, or simply adding more diplomats on top of existing ones. Could the new EU Foreign Service, rather than fostering unity, instead lead to European disintegration?
‘The Union Wins’
Ambassador Vale de Almeida, who touts his pioneering role as the first head of an EU mission under the post-Lisbon regime, remains optimistic. Instead of conflict, he sees enrichment.
“One of the assets I will have at my service will be the fact that I’ll have collaborators coming from three sources: the commission, which is where I come from; the Council Secretariat; and most importantly, the diplomatic systems of the 27 member states,” he said. “And I … look forward to welcoming the first national diplomats in this delegation. I don’t yet know when, or who, but I’m looking forward to having this added value of national diplomats. I don’t see the EEAS as who’s going to win; I see it as the union wins, because it can put at its service all the expertise coming from different sources.”
The transition to a fully functional EEAS-based Foreign Service is expected to take until 2013. During that time, as European Commission diplomats rotate back to Brussels, vacancies will be filled with diplomats from the European Union Council and individual member states. The total number of diplomats in the EU Delegation in Washington will remain roughly the same, though one political counselor is being added. This means that existing jobs are not directly threatened. Even the number-two position at the embassy, deputy chief of mission, will be open to national diplomats. Ashton is expected to make a decision on this important post by the end of the year.
On top of managing the transition at the Washington mission, Vale de Almeida will be representing the full range of issues encompassed by the EU’s new foreign policy apparatus. Simply put, his brief covers trade-related issues as well as security and defense matters formerly covered by the rotating six-month council presidency. In practice, this means that Vale de Almeida will chair frequent meetings of the 27 member states in Washington to coordinate common policies and messages.
One of Almeida’s greatest assets as he enters uncharted waters is his intimate knowledge of the Brussels policymaking circles and the key players within them, said Fran Burwell, director of transatlantic relations at the Washington-based Atlantic Council of the United States. “[The ambassador] was central to setting up a post-Lisbon EU. He comes extremely well connected in Brussels,” Burwell said. “He can pick up the phone and get through to anyone. This is very useful.”
Who’s Who in Washington
The ambassador’s broader mandate, along with a reconfigured EU Foreign Service, will doubtless usher in a new era for the bloc’s presence in Washington. “2175 K Street will be more and more the focal point for our American friends,” said a spokesperson for the EU Delegation, cautioning though that the office will in no way interfere with the prerogatives of member states’ embassies.
On that note, EU member states are not likely to cut their staffing or change the function of their embassies to the United States, which they consider a key foreign mission. They may even welcome the assistance that a beefed-up EU Delegation may offer in the competitive Washington arena.
A spokesperson for the British Embassy confirmed that Britain wants “an effective EU delegation here, which works with the member states across the whole range of transatlantic relations and more actively defends European trade and economic interests.”
“The U.K. supports the aim of improving the EU’s global effectiveness, in particular to ensure that the EEAS can add value to member states’ actions around the world. We want more effective representation of positions we collectively agree with EU partners. For example, it is in Britain’s interest that collective EU weight is brought to bear in the push for Middle East peace, in driving forward delivery on rich countries’ commitments to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, in joining up development and security efforts by EU member states and the commission in Afghanistan.”
But these aims “won’t affect the British Embassy’s work — we will not be changing or curtailing any of our activities in Washington,” the spokesperson added.
To that end, Vale de Almeida stresses that despite his wider mandate, he won’t infringe on the powers of member states. “We don’t pretend to be the exclusive contact point for anybody in the U.S. We want to be a useful one,” he said. “What I can tell you is we will be progressively deploying expertise and capacity on all the different fronts…. I think we can be the first contact point and in some areas the most important one. In other areas maybe less so.”
He added: “We fully respect and value the role of the member states. The [European Union] is basically a union of member states and citizens. And we believe there’s a role for all of us here. What I can tell you is that the delegation has enlarged its mandate. It’s progressively increasing its capacity. We will be welcoming new colleagues from different areas of expertise. So my reply in a nutshell is to say we are an indispensable contact point for anything European. But we don’t pretend to be the exclusive contact point.”
Under the Lisbon Treaty arrangement, only the embassy holding the rotating EU presidency will curtail its activities in Washington. A spokesperson for the Belgian Embassy, which currently holds the six-month presidency, confirmed: “It is the EU Delegation, rather than the rotating presidency, that is the prime interlocutor for United States authorities in their relations with the European Union. For this reason, the rotating presidency will not be visible in Washington in the way it was before the Lisbon Treaty.”
Down the Road
In the short to medium term then, those searching for a major shift in the nature of U.S.-EU relations are likely to be disappointed. Vale de Almeida’s delegation will only speak for the EU when all member states agree on a common position. The new structures also do not mean that the thorny EU decision-making process will become any less contentious — which many see as the ultimate measure of the bloc’s effectiveness.
According to Burwell, American policymakers and EU watchers would do well to exercise patience as the EEAS takes shape. Until 2013, when a review of the service’s progress will be conducted, EU officials will remain focused on getting their “foreign ministry” operational.
Washington is also not the place where the EU’s new foreign policy arrangement is likely to be felt most strongly in the short and medium term, according to Daniel Hamilton, executive director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “U.S. officials are more likely to notice the impact of the EEAS earlier in places like Kyiv, Yerevan or Rabat, where the EU ambassador could have 10 times the resources of the British ambassador and thus become a much more important partner when it comes to addressing joint challenges,” Hamilton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in December 2009 testimony.
Meanwhile, the long-term impact of the Lisbon Treaty on European foreign policy remains the big question mark. As many people interviewed for this article stated, the true significance of the recent innovations introduced by Lisbon can only be assessed years from now. Only then, after national diplomats have been integrated, rules established, and bureaucratic cultures merged, can a judgment be made on whether the institutional shakeup translated into a fundamentally new EU approach.
For the moment, the skeptics have the upper hand. In a June article titled “External Action Service: Much Ado About Nothing,” Stefani Weiss of the Bertelsmann Foundation excoriated the new EU foreign policy architecture. “It is of course true that the Treaty of Lisbon has created new offices and institutions, but otherwise everything that is of crucial importance is actually still the same,” she wrote. “The EU has not witnessed systemic change.”
In a similar vein, a July study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, an influential Brussels think tank, identified many ways in which the EU and its member states play a role in international forums, undermining the “single voice” theory. More crucially, the report lamented that basic thinking hasn’t changed. “What is lacking so far is a systematic or strategic review of the status quo; a coherent rationale for the progressive strengthening of the EU’s presence, in line with its competences,” the report noted.
Nevertheless, Vale de Almeida is excited about the EU’s future prospects — and the EEAS’s potential. “The EEAS is not yet fully there, but we here are the frontrunners,” he said. “So it’s a fundamental change compared to my predecessors. I have a much wider mandate than before, and I will have a greater degree of responsibility in representing the union’s interests, coordinating the work of the 27 member states whenever we are dealing with matters of European relevance, in full respect of their role in bilateral issues. These are fundamental differences,” he said. “So you see, we have very interesting times ahead of us.”
Next month, ahead of the EU-U.S. Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, on Nov. 20, The Washington Diplomat profiles Ambassador João Vale de Almeida on the cover of its November 2010 issue.
About the Author
Jacob Comenetz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.