Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

EU hasn't wasted any time getting its claws into foreign policy

The speed with which the European Union has moved forward, after the final passage of the Lisbon Treaty into law on December 1, 2009, has the lash of vengeance in its tail against those in this country who said 'No' to it, twice, and those who wanted to elsewhere. It has the rank smell and dexterity detected by Hamlet, as he surveyed his uncle's replacement of his father in the "incestuous sheets", which he knew from his father's ghost to have been founded on a criminal act. "That it should come to this, but two months dead!" was how he put it.

The EU was faster than that. It was "within a month, ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in our galled eyes", that the European Commission imposed the first sanction on national sovereignty, when Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt declared that, under Lisbon, foreign ministers of EU countries would no longer attend EU summits.

Within days, such a summit took place and the change meant that Europe's neophyte foreign minister Cathy Ashton would attend in their place. Within Europe, we only have 'domestic policy' now. Foreign policy is extraneous. Moreover, it will be conducted by European embassies around the world, staffed by European employees and representing an enormously more powerful, 500 million-person political entity -- whose interests and objectives can be clarified and presented with a clarity and simplicity unknown to Iveagh House.

The initiative was clearly not Sweden's, although the Swedes were nominally in charge -- as all presidencies have been throughout the EU's history. It was clear from the way Carl Bildt put it that the new 'law' on foreign relations was dictated by the EU Commission.

Announcing the change, he said in December: "As it happens, I am persuaded it's a very good idea. But I can't say all the other foreign ministers share that opinion, to put it politely." To all of them, it came as a surprise. And if I know Micheal Martin, the surprise was far from welcome. Did it put us at 'the heart of Europe'? As Hamlet said: "It is not and it cannot come to good."

Reactions varied. Not surprisingly, in Britain the point was seized on that the creation of a common EU foreign policy and independent embassies around the world answerable to the EU Commission meant Britain and other member states could be overruled on crucial diplomatic matters.

The 'Daily Telegraph' cited the example of "how to respond to human rights abuses in a conflict-ridden country".

"In order for common embassies to work, EU member states must have shared national interests. This simply isn't the case, particularly in Africa, where the EU has consistently failed to act in a unified manner in the past," the 'Daily Telegraph' writer noted.

For Ireland, there will be an effect on development aid and missionary work. They will need to conform with commission foreign policy, expressed from now on by EU embassies better-funded and staffed than our own -- at the heart of capital cities in our hallowed, third-world territories.

With the indecent haste deplored by Hamlet, 54 European embassies will initially be set up around the world. These will represent us. Being representative also of the much larger EU entity, and especially its big-state members, they will be listened to with far greater attention than we are. They will co-ordinate the work carried out by member states' bilateral missions. These have either opened, or are opening shortly, and it is happening without any public announcement.

'The Irish Times', which worked hard for the 'Yes' vote, recently made clear that the creation, structuring and financing of the EU's new diplomatic corps would be brought to a conclusion in April, leading inevitably to duplication between the EU and member states and closures of various national missions because of funding problems.

Tears shed on this score will be among specialist interests and will not refer to the loss of sovereignty. The process of supervising this will be largely confined to the EU Council and the EU Commission.

We should remind ourselves that the new commission is only interim, yet to be confirmed by the European Parliament. But how is the cutting of bureaucratic corners among friends a problem? Why not just get on with the job of reassigning parts of the €3bn European Development Fund or the €285m Instrument for Stability?

It will probably mean elevation for Martin Territt, head of the commission's representation in Ireland. He played an influential role in propagandising on behalf of the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland and will soon become a real European Union ambassador.

British concerns about the European Union, as expressed by 'The Times' of London, centre on three criticisms -- that it "represents an assault on British sovereignty", "wastes taxpayers' money on high-living and procedural incompetence" and because "its opacity is a deliberate ploy obscuring a surreptitious goal of building a powerful, single European state".

The Irish were assured the first would not happen. We would retain sovereignty. The second will be welcome, since we are wasters of taxpayers' money. It will give us more cash to squander on banks. The third will simply underline the preposterous claim that we would be 'at the heart of Europe'. The intrusive road of finding out how much it costs, what exactly it is for, and, above all, whom it serves is a hugely difficult one.

Though the caretaker EU Commission has implemented these changes, it has to wait for the budget. No such delay affects the European Court of Justice ruling on Ireland's bin-collection charges. These will soon be subject to VAT, from 13.5 to 21pc, thus intruding into and changing our taxes. Remember? That was not going to happen? The Department of Finance is drafting legislation to be incorporated in the Finance Act 2010, and will add a 'European' tax to the current domestic tax burden.

Remember, the most important political change in the EU system after Lisbon will be the power to make future EU laws on the basis of 65pc of the total EU population, giving the big member states eventual control of the post-Lisbon EU, coming into force in 2014. Wasn't Hamlet lucky not to have to deal with foreign relations, law and economics?