Events & News


EU Diplomacy After Lisbon: The Case of China

Dr Bo Zhiyue, Senior Research Fellow, East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore and Ms Frauke Austermann, PhD candidate, Free University of Berlin/Renmin University of China

07 Dec 2010

EAI Conference Room, NUS Bukit Timah Campus 469A Bukit Timah Road, Tower Block #06-01, Singapore 259770


Dr Bo Zhiyue outlined the significant institutional changes brought by the Lisbon Treaty and their impact on the EU foreign policy: the new mechanisms of foreign policy making, the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European External Action Service (EEAS). He said that China has apparently taken a significant place in the EU foreign policy agenda, with the new High Representative Catherine Ashton visiting China twice since her appointment a year ago.

The central question is whether the institutional changes will make the EU more coherent in its relations with third countries. Ms Frauke Austermann stressed that for the EU to be more coherent there should be more coordination and centralization at the EU level. This, in turn, would require authority transfer from national to supranational level. Ms Austermann then referred to various international relations theories’ frameworks to outline divergent views on how much the EU can achieve in terms of coherence. On the one hand, neo-functionalism posits that there can be functional spill-over from one policy area to another, with the possible “end product” of a federal state. On the other hand, liberal intergovernmentalism assumes that integration can take place in low politics but not in high politics: foreign policy and defence are too sensitive domains and thus are deemed to remain under Member States’ competence. So far, the dominant view has been that the latter approach has “won” the debate. There are many examples confirming this: the foreign policy decisions still require consensus of all Member States; there have been disagreements over Iraq war etc. Will the Lisbon Treaty bring “a new era”?

While one can still make only speculative assumptions about the new EEAS (it started work on 1 December 2010), it is already possible to analyze the changes taking place in the EU delegations. Building on the existing network of European Commission delegations, the new EU delegations have been significantly upgraded and gained a strategic position in terms of internal coordination and external interaction with the host country. Before the Lisbon Treaty, the rotating EU Presidency was represented by the respective Member State’s representation with its own agenda. This often resulted in inconsistencies, with the rotating Presidency changing from very big to very small embassies with different institutional capacity. Now the EU Delegations have taken over the role of the Presidency.

Describing the changes taking place in China, Ms Austermann stressed the increased prominence of the 120 people strong EU delegation. For instance, the internal coordination among the Member States is done within 15 working groups, with the agenda being set by the EU delegation. For some Member States with small delegations it is hard to attend them all, so often they have to trust that the EU delegation effectively representing them.

This would suggest that neo-functionalists’ view would gain more ground. However, Ms Austermann emphasized that in strategically important countries like China, the centralization is still limited. Most Member States maintain very strong representations led by senior diplomats. The bilateral contacts with the Chinese side have not decreased, except for the Presidency. For instance, the most important trade deals are still done bilaterally. Moreover, China prefers to work with the Member States bilaterally, not with the EU as a whole. Sovereignty is still a very important concept in China, and hence there is certain uneasiness towards the EU as a supranational entity. Liberal intergovernmentalism is thus still very appropriate for analysing EU foreign policy.

In the Q&A session, participants also discussed the eventual importance of these changes for Singapore. While minor issues could be a challenge, the frictions in implementing the Lisbon Treaty would be less visible in Singapore, as, unlike in China, the sides know each other well and the “rules of the game are there”.