The European Union Foreign Affairs Council
The European Union Foreign Affairs Council (EU FAC) is a formation of the European Council which was created by the treaty of Lisbon in 2009. There are four different formats of this council formation and four possible constellations. The foreign, defence, development or trade ministers can meet in the context of this council formation. While the meetings of the latter are led by the minister of the country which obtains the EU Council Presidency, the meetings of the foreign ministers are led by the High Representative/Vice President (HR/VP) of the EU. The HR/VP contributes to the decision making and consensus of the council and creates the agenda for the meetings. In its usual format, the foreign ministers of the EU member states meet every month and more frequently if needed, while the three other subgroups of ministers meet less frequently. The assemblies of the EU FAC happen under the constant support of diplomats and other experts due to the high workload. Informal meetings, the so called “Gymnich meeting” are also organised.
Main Tasks and Goals
As part of the Council of the EU, the EU FAC has a coordination function and not a legislative function such as other council formations. Its main task is to coordinate the implementation of policies which have an impact on the EU and other member states. Another aspect is the concentration and coordination of national resources to reach common goals and react to crisis situations. The EU FAC has to coordinate EU and national efforts in the fields of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). There are few possible sanctions and possibilities to outvote a member state in the field of coordination procedures of the Council of the EU. Therefore, the EU FAC works very consensus-orientated to ensure the sustainability of its decisions and unite the member states.
Frequently, the Foreign Affairs Council comments on the foreign policy and actions of third countries. It is therefore a channel of communication which allows the member states to speak with one voice and emphasize the cohesion of the EU, towards Russia for instance, regarding the infringement of human rights and the containment of cyber-attacks. As a coordinating body, the EU FAC facilitates the personal and direct exchange of opinions on the ministerial and diplomatic level. The EU tries to strengthen shared values like democracy and the rule of law. In this context the European Council decides on the strategic goals of the European CFSP, while the EU FAC takes care of the political implementation. The EU FAC also decides on the policy proposals of the HR/VP in conjunction with the European Commission and thereby steers the development of European foreign policy.
In the light of the principle of unanimity in the decisions of the European Council and the Council of the European Union regarding foreign policy, the decisions of the EU FAC constitute in the end the lowest achievable common denominator. This issue won’t be solved as long as the foreign policy remains in the hands of the member states. Especially because the governments of all member states are directly participating in the decisions, national interests can obstruct determined decisions. It is not the aim of this article to assess the balanced institutional structure of the European Union. However, it should be noted that if there is some potential in the development of the institutional structure, the sovereign foreign policy of European countries will always limit the capabilities for the European institutions.
The EU FAC facilitates the coordination of the EU member states foreign policy under the participation of the EU HR/VP. It contributes to the ability of the European Union to speak with one voice towards third countries. Like the informal meetings of the Eurogroup for the ministers of finance, the “Gymnich meetings” allow the foreign ministers to develop policy projects in the frame of the European Union in a confidential setting. In the end, the EU FAC also limits and controls the ability of the European Union to act as an independent actor. It ensures the consideration of national policies in the foreign policy of the EU but also guarantees the capacity of the EU to act in the face of international developments and crisis.