The world’s eyes were turned towards Ukraine over the last week to an extent to which some other tragic events, as the protests in Venezuela, were shadowed despite their importance. Many articles were devoted to this issue, including several posts on this blog. They focused on state-to-state relations such as American, Russian or Polish stance towards Kyiv. This article will focus on the „speaking with one voice” issue of the European Union. The notion, theorized for a long time, has become a classical in the analysis of EU Foreign policy and is closely related to firstly the public face of the EU, secondly the number of actors having publicly a word to say, and thirdly who get the credit for an action. In this respect, the last events in Ukraine are a perfect case mixing several European authorities and national governments. This short text will argue that despite a chaotic start, the EU foreign policy might have found a new distribution of efficiency of the role than what it has been in the past. It will focus on the public relations part of the crisis, concentrating on the European side, and the narrative that emerged in media. Three periods will be covered: the public reactions to the bloody repression of February 19th, the journey of the three special envoys to Ukraine on February 20th and beyond.
Kyiv woke up with a headache. According to an official counting, the riots of last night led to 25 dead and 241 wounded. The situation was at a turning point: pictures and videos of the night’s violence’s were being broadcasted 24/7 on TVs, making the public opinion more-than-ever conscious of what is happening at the very borders of the EU. The bloody repression and the mobilised public opinion increased tensions among political entities of the EU. Publicly, the first call was raised by Warsaw. Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, announced in front of the Parliament that time has come to adopt sanctions against Ukraine. At the same moment, above thousand kilometres to the West, in the Elysée Palace, France’s President Hollande and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel were discussing the same topic. The Weimar Triangle was concerting. The EU foreign policy is known for its multiple configurations but the triangle remains the most credible, experimented and expected EU foreign policy actor (to consider it as a single entity) to deal with the issue, considering its long-standing stance towards the Eastern Partnership. The French Presidency issued a press release limpid on the topic: “it has been convened with Mr Tusk on the necessity of rapid and targeted European sanctions against main responsible of these acts”. France, Germany and Poland has now allied and aligned on the issue. They has taken the upper hand on the EU’s diplomatic service – European External Action Service, by seemingly giving an impetus to the adoption of sanctions. No doubt however that the EEAS was already seriously considering the option in the backstage. Tusk also communicated on the issue, and presented himself similarly to the High-Representative of the EU/Vice-President, who issued the following statement, as cited by the EU observer: “I will today hold talks with the leaders of the biggest EU countries and European institutions, and persuade them to impose sanctions – personal and financial”. Us – the Europeans – have the will and the actors. What is still needed is an international support to be as credible as possible. Interestingly, Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Affairs Minister, was meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry to debate the situation…
National actors have obviously been hit by a “communication fever” that contaminated the European level. If, so far, the EEAS remained silent, no doubt that conciliations had already taken place. Ashton was actually in the difficult position: she was in Vienna, with most of the European top diplomats, to hold talks with Iran about its nuclear program. It has been the major issue for the EU for the last twenty years, and communicating simultaneously on another topic would have relegated Iran to a second-rank issue. Other European actors, taking benefit from this obliged almost-muteness, took the stage either for personal and electoral benefit (Candidate Verhofstadt) or for institution-related prestige (Van Rompuy or Baroso). The President of the European Council, speaking on behalf of head of states and governments, regretted the situation and called for a de-escalation of violence. On the other side of the Shuman roundabout in Brussels, President Baroso was on the phone with President Yanukovych. He called for an immediate end to the violence and underlined the role of the European Union. He also issued a statement. Baroso placed himself above the fray by commenting on the position of member states: “And I am happy to see that there is now a broad consensus among our Member States in the way to deal with this issue. Just yesterday, because you were meeting an important delegation of business leaders, I spoke about these matters with President Hollande of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany and, in fact, I have understood how deep is also their commitment to find a peaceful solution and today in the meeting with Prime Minister Sobotka, I have seen the same concerns and determination”.
February 20th. Ashton calls the tune.
The next morning, the situation remained unclear. The main newspapers made flavour about the “trip of the three” – French, German and Polish Foreign Ministers to Kyiv. They were supposed to go there in order to „restore political dialogue between the opposition and the government”, according to AFP. At the same moment, an extraordinary EU Foreign Affairs Council has been set up in Brussels. As stated, the situation was especially unsure about the mandate of the three MFAs sent to Ukraine. The media were indeed reporting on the trip, but were not stressing the origin of it or the political context within the EU (see for example this AFP release). The three were benefiting of extra-ordinary media coverage as they were seen as almost messianic. They were alimenting this buzz through their Twitter accounts (see: @laurentfabius and @sikorskiradek). Indeed, the meeting was taking benefit of live-tweet coverage… Without denying their crucial role, and the personal weight they put in the balance to reach an agreement, it seems that the European Union has been the great absent at ‘the party’.
The situation could not continue further like that. It was time for Ashton to get into the ball, once back from Vienna (the famous Viennese ball). As an opening remark to the FAC, Ashton clearly and un-equivocally reset up the scene and underlined boldly her role in the situation (pay attention to the number of “Is”): “While I was at the Iran talks, I convened this Foreign Affairs Council to consider the terrible situation that is happening in Ukraine. I also asked three Foreign Ministers – Minister Steinmeier, Minister Fabius and Minister Sikorski – to go on behalf of myself and the European Union to Kyiv. I’ve spoken to them twice in the last couple of hours. They’ve had a number of meetings and are currently in further discussions. I’ll be reporting to the Council on what they said”. This is a masterpiece of political communication. Indeed, Ashton was back at the centre of the game as the message is limpid: “I asked them to go as I was unavailable. They are accounting to me and everything is going through me”. The statement of the High Representative at the exit of the Council reiterated the same message.
Day +1. Symphony?
The Ukrainian situation has represented for European actors a tremendous window of opportunity. All eyes were turned towards Brussels, considered by many as the most legitimate actor to act in its direct neighbourhood. The political actors understood very rapidly the potential benefits they could have from the situation (despite the moral and human necessity to intervene, obviously). It offered them a promise of tribune and political glory.
Without being too optimistic, Ukraine’s very recent troubled history has been a lesson for the European Union’s institutions. The modus operandi was slightly modified as the circumstances were exceptional, and the outcome positive. Catherine Ashton was the real chief of EU diplomacy, despite the fact that the communication strategy of the three national Foreign Ministers sent to Kiev may have led some to conclude that the EEAS was out of the game. By coordinating the action of the three envoys and chairing the FAC meeting, Ashton was actually playing the central role in this piece. Many have raised criticism about HR/VP and her action abroad. However, this configuration: an external policy coordinated by the EEAS, shaped by the Council and implemented by national Foreign Ministers, seems to be successful. Nevertheless, a strong coordination is essential for this formula to be successful in order to avoid the misunderstandings among member states, as it has already been the case at the time of the Iranian’s dossier. A reason for Ashton’s travel to Ukraine, once the deal has been concluded, is to also benefit from the credits of a nice photo-op. Good for her and the EU.
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Graduate from the Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Liège (MA, 2012) and the Department of European Political and Administrative Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges (MA 2013). Intern at the European Movement Belgium (2010) and the Group of Research and Information on Peace and Security (Brussels, 2013). He is since associated researcher at GRIP and member of the political cabinet of a Belgian Minister, dealing with European and International Affairs.