The creation of a EU diplomatic corps, known in Brussel jargon as the European External Action Service (EEAS), unimaginable just ten years ago, is a step forward that will unfortunately do little to change the current situation. Despite the fact that the Lisbon treaty is the the founding cornerstone of European diplomacy, the treaty still does not define a common foreign policy. And the problem still remains of how to persuade the member states' democratically elected governments to agree to adopt such a measure.

The first 28 nominations of EU ambassadors to Africa, the Americas, Europe and Asia, recently made by the head of the Union's diplomatic corps, highlight an interesting situation. While it is laudable that the EU is beginning to forge a common foreign policy, it is still a political lightweight. And it is doubtful that this network of 136 embassies, despite being staffed by extremely competent personnel, will solve this essential problem. Nor indeed will Mrs Ashton's new crisis management centre, which will draw upon the views and analyses of more than a hundred the continent's pre-eminent experts.

The EU is the absent player in a number of important international arenas. It does not play a part in the Middle East peace negotiations; it has only weakly supported the United States in its face-off with Tehran's nuclear program; and it is slowly pulling out of Afghanistan. Its only international success has been to help normalise relations between Serbia and one of its former provinces, the now independent state of Kosovo.

Even with Germany, France and Britain, the EU carries little weight

Lacking the authority of a united and cohesive Union, Catherine Ashton is unable to effectively defend Europe's position in world affairs: she has no real bargaining chips. How many world leaders could she frighten if her most lethal weapon is a copy of the Treaty of Lisbon? And how many countries would bow before the threat to close down a local embassy of the European Union?

And recently, when it seemed that the EU could play a leading role in the global warming debate and negotiations, the failure of the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009 crushed that illusion. Europe's position of authority, as well as its own self-confidence, took a significant hit.

Even with members as powerful as Germany, France and Britain, the European Union carries little weight. The truth is that in the wake of the Second World War, the European powers lost much of their importance. And today, while the EU is too weak to be an effective leader, it is still too large to remain in the wings of world affairs.

With a GDP 28% above the world average, the EU is at the same time an economic giant and a political dwarf. And to keep it this way, Russia, China, India and Brazil have preferred to deal individually with each European country, rather than to go through the common channels of the European Union.

National policies present significant obstacles

According to Cornelius Ochmann, foreign policy expert at the Bertelsmann Foundation, EU countries will initially define common foreign policy goals in areas that least conflict with individual national interests. Such is the case for parts of Asia, Africa and South America.

As it now stands, certain national policies in Germany, France and England present significant obstacles to a unified European political strategy. According to MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, president of the European Parliament's foreign affairs commission, cooperation among the member states, the European Parliament and Ashton's own diplomatic efforts will all be necessary for such an alliance to work. It is only then that a mature and balanced foreign policy can be forged, one that takes into account the often divergent interests of large and small states, parliament, as well as of those directing European diplomatic policy.

Cornelius Ochmann has also noted the inevitable trend toward regionalisation in foreign policy. For example, it is obvious that France, backed by Italy and Portugal, will always be at the forefront in issues concerning Africa and the Mediterranean countries. For their part, Spain and Portugal will have a prominent role in the relations between the EU and Latin America, and Germany and Poland (with support from France) will deal closely with Russia and the EU neighbours that comprise the Eastern Partnership.

Europe should expand into the Balkan states

And what about Britain? A strong British presence in the EU diplomatic corps and the fact that Ashton is British mean that while London may not play a pivotal role in EU diplomacy, neither will it stand in the way of its objectives.

Sooner or later, these regional political tendencies will meld to form a common foreign policy in the EU, even if experts disagree on the timetable: some have said that it will only be a matter of two or three years, while others are speaking in terms of a decade.

There are many areas in which Europe could play a more significant role. In Africa for example, China has invested billions in commerce and industry, while Europe and the United States have spent billions for humanitarian aid and development. Instead of competing against each other, why not coordinate these efforts for the benefit of the African populations? This same model for cooperation could be utilised as well in other parts of the world.

It goes without saying that it is in Europe's best interests to expand into the Balkan states. It is also in the EU's interest to deal frankly with Turkey, either to accelerate the negotiations that will lead to Turkey's membership in the EU, or to break off the membership talks in favour of creating the kind of strategic partnership with Ankara that Europe needs much more than Turkey.

The European Union must make use of its potential. Ashton's diplomatic efforts are a good first step, but the established diplomatic channels have to be used to be effective, and too often, this is just not the case. Europe can no longer allow itself the luxury of watching and waiting.