It has never been as easy to ignore the European Union with impunity. First it was Russia, which in August 2008 rode roughshod over all the European security treaties and invaded Georgia in retaliation for the latter’s foolish assault on the capital of South Ossetia. Then it was China, which that November treated itself to the luxury of suspending its summit with the EU to protest Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. A month later, when Israel levelled Gaza, the EU immediately offered to finance the reconstruction without even considering holding Israel accountable. And when they got to the Copenhagen Climate Conference last December, Washington and Beijing joined forces, going over the heads of the Europeans, to sabotage any shot at a legally binding deal to reduce emissions. Obama, whose popularity ratings are higher in Europe than at home, decided he had better fish to fry than to attend a US-EU summit under the aegis of the Spanish EU presidency. And to top it all off, we Europeans are bending over backwards to apologise to Tripoli because the Swiss authorities had the nerve to arrest Gaddafi’s son for physically abusing his servants.

Huge costs for limited clout

And all that despite a spectacular diplomatic armada. According to the figures available, the 27 EU member states run 2,172 embassies and 933 consulates, plus 125 delegations of the European Commission. The United States, in contrast, has only 170 embassies and 63 consulates. The EU 27’s foreign ministries and the Commission employ some 110,000 staff to keep this mammoth machinery running. Half of them, about 55,000 staff, are national government employees (diplomatic and auxiliary personnel), while the other half are local staff hired to provide services to those diplomatic missions.

The United States has roughly the same number of diplomats and auxiliaries (48,000), but only needs 18,000 locals for its embassies and consulates. For any reasonable businessman, the diagnosis would be self-evident: with 13 times the number of embassies and consulates that the US has, and three times the local manpower, Europeans are incurring huge costs in return for very limited clout. His advice would inevitably be: Consolidate! Specialise geographically or by subject area, avoid overlaps, create added value!

More bark than bite

Brussels is in turmoil these days since Lady Ashton submitted her plan to create a European External Action Service (EEAS), one of the innovations provided for in the Lisbon Treaty to boost the unity and coherence of European diplomacy. Instead of having each country soldier it alone, which has been the norm up till now, the member states have decided to merge the three current branches of European diplomacy: the European Commission’s Directorate-General for External Relations; the foreign policy and security units that were in Javier Solana’s hands in the European Council until a few months ago; and a large number of national diplomats on secondment, who are to be incorporated into this new service. Now that made a lot of sense on paper. But now that the moment of truth is at hand, that consolidation is proving a lot more complicated in practice than expected.

The Council and the member states are reluctant to put their crisis management instruments under the tutelage of the European Commission, which they secretly deride for its torpor and endless red tape. The Commission, for its part, is unwilling to put its imposing financial instruments (including its highly-coveted Development Cooperation Policy) in the hands of national diplomats. And the European Parliament, which, though always playing the victim, ends up being the big winner under all the new treaties, wants to use its new budgetary powers to call the shots on the configuration of the new service. Some people are talking about "trench warfare" these days, but it’s more bark than bite: if you peruse the successive drafts, you realise the only projectiles Europeans are capable of firing at one another are legal clauses, organigrammes and footnotes. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is waiting for Brussels to get its show on the road.