The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from Professor Dr Sonja Puntscher Riekmann

The Role of Ministries of Foreign Affairs in Domestic EU-Policy Co-ordination

A comparative perspective

EU-membership entails special arrangements for co-ordinating domestic positions to be presented and negotiated at the EU level. The EU being a political system in continuous evolution, such arrangements need to be adjusted to novel provisions either enshrined in primary law or in institutional agreements between EU organs. In that respect the Treaty of Lisbon has brought about a number of changes, in particular the growing importance of the European Council with its permanent president, the expanded role of the European Parliament in the ordinary legislation procedure and the new competencies of the High Representative of Common Foreign and Security Affairs. In all Member States Ministries of Foreign Affairs have played an important role in co-ordinating national positions before and after accession. Our comparative study however indicates that this role is in a process of change, albeit to different degrees.

Our study, commissioned and financed by the Austrian Federal Chancellery, has compared the situation in the following Member States: Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The rationale guiding this choice was to compare by size, length of membership and last presidency of the EU Council. The study is empirically based on interviews that scholars working in the countries have carried out with high officials of national administrations between June and October 2010 and according to a common questionnaire. The question about the role of Ministries of Foreign Affairs was one among others relating to the overall question about how domestic EU-policy co-ordination is organised in the member states investigated. Thus, the results presented below are a summary of the answers given by the interviewees.

There is some interesting variation across the five countries in the degree of centralisation of the process of EU co-ordination. Centralisation is indicated by a shift of power from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs or other ministries to the Offices of Prime Ministers. This is first and foremost the case in the Czech Republic where EU-Policy co-ordination is managed by the Unit of the Minister for European Affairs in the Office of Government (Prime Minister’s Office) where the Prime Minister is directly responsible for the unit. Since 2010 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an influential player before and after accession, is now only in charge to co-ordinate the Czech position with respect to the EU’s external affairs.

Similarly, in Sweden the process of co-ordination is largely centralised in the prime minister’s office. However, owing to the Swedish political culture of consensus it is less a process of top-down steering than of generating common positions by reiterative processes of deliberation. Ministries enjoy less autonomy than in other member states and this holds true also for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

France and the UK appear to be intermediary cases as we can witness high degrees of centralisation, however they diverge in detail. Due to the semi-presidential political system, in France the cabinet of the president has since long played an important role and so has the prime minister’s office, the prime minister chairing the Inter-ministerial Committee on Europe. The strengthened role of the European Council appears to enhance this development, whereby the importance of the Prime Minister largely depends on the relationship with the president. Moreover, the Secrétariat Général des Affaires Européenes (SGAE) as an administrative unit was created not only to co-ordinate EU-Policy but also to advise the Prime Minister. France though is peculiar in that the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Economics play special roles as well. They became especially prominent in the course of the financial and economic crisis, whereas the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can hardly be considered as a key player in this respect. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as much as the two aforementioned ministries have strong links, even an "osmosis", with the Permanent Representation in Brussels. These links give the Ministry of Foreign Affairs considerable advantages in terms of information and knowledge about EU decision-making processes.

In the United Kingdom the Cabinet Office that includes the Prime Minister’s Office plays a key role in EU policy co-ordination. However, due to the novelty of a coalition government EU policy co-ordination appears less centralised and opaque than in the past two governments. In particular the European Affairs Committee (EAC) is to guarantee better formalisation and transparency. The role of the FCO is ambivalent: While facing a serious decline in the Blair-Brown era, it shows sign of new life symbolized by the Foreign Secretary’s selection as chair of the EAC. However, it no longer co-ordinates the "write around" which it has ceded to the Cabinet’s Office, nor does it control communications between Whitehall and Brussels, since all departments have well-established relations with the Permanent Representation. It is therefore questionable whether the resurgence of the FCO is to last also because it is perceived as a line ministry rather than an honest broker. Other noteworthy changes are the decrease in FCO staff in the Permanent Representation and the growing confinement of the FCO to foreign policy and global matters.

Germany also offers an ambivalent picture: Whereas on the one hand there is considerable continuity with past structure of co-ordination, there is some evidence for a trend towards centralisation in the Chancellor’s Office. However, much of the co-ordination remains in the hands of the Ministry of Economics and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the latter chairing also the Committee of European Affairs. Indeed, thirteen respondents suggested that the de facto centre of policy co-ordination is the Foreign Ministry, whereas eleven mentioned the Chancellor’s Office. This may be interpreted as a division of power that, however, is not necessarily only a result of the systemic features of the German political system, but likely to stem from the fact that in recent German governments, the Chancellor and the Minister of Foreign Affairs have been from different political parties. Moreover, recent announcements made by the German Chancellor in terms of better European economic governance could lead towards centralised co-ordination in her cabinet.

By way of conclusion we may hold that there is variation between FMA-, PM-centred and shared domestic co-ordination of EU-Policy-making:

FMA-centred co-ordination appears to be in decline in all Member States under investigation. However, Germany and the United Kingdom show signs of deviation in that the FMA retains important formal powers of co-ordination and may thus resist complete centralisation in the PM-Cabinet.

PM-centred co-ordination is most pronounced in the Czech Republic and in Sweden, albeit the Swedish system is marked by consensus-building between the centre and other ministries.

France does hardly fit into clear-cut categories, due to shared powers by the president and the Prime Minister, the latter being supported by the SGAE, but also due to the role of the Ministries of Finance and Economics in particular in their relevant policy-fields.

2 February 2011