Climate negotiators at this year’s United Nations climate change conference in Warsaw are meeting against a backdrop of increasingly complex and fragmented global climate politics. Some suggest that the era of European climate leadership is past. But the European Union can still shape global climate governance. The EU is still a policy and technology innovator, and can drive ambition in the global climate negotiations. However, to maximise its role, Europe needs to strengthen its capacity for climate diplomacy.
The creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS) provided an opportunity to build a new diplomacy that could place greater emphasis on climate change and other contemporary global issues. The EEAS has so far failed to develop significant capacity in the climate area and its creation represents a missed opportunity for European climate leadership. But a greater role for the EEAS could strengthen European climate diplomacy in a number of ways.
First, it would signal strengthened political commitment and engagement for climate action within the EU. Second, the extensive network of EU delegations around the world at the EEAS’s disposal could help to deepen European understanding of the interests and domestic politics of climate action in partner countries.
Third, the EEAS could help to embed European climate diplomacy more deeply in the broader context of EU external relations. By doing so, the EEAS could help to identify political trade-offs and to strike political bargains by joining the dots between climate and other aspects of Europe’s relations with partner countries.
A number of member states have sought to bring climate change into the mainstream of their foreign policy agendas. Among these, the UK has been particularly pioneering and France is investing heavily in diplomatic capacity in the run-up to the Paris UN climate conference in 2015. By contrast, climate diplomacy has not been a visible priority of the EEAS since its inception. By taking steps to signal a high-level commitment to climate diplomacy, the EEAS could make a valuable contribution to European climate diplomacy.
Over the past two years, the EU’s foreign affairs council has discussed climate diplomacy twice, and the European Commission and EEAS have produced two ‘joint reflection papers’ on the subject. While this indicates a growing appetite among European foreign ministers for incorporating climate change more solidly into EU external relations, these documents have been less forthcoming on the role of the EEAS in EU climate diplomacy.
The challenge is to incorporate climate change into the work of the EEAS. This requires greater buy-in for climate diplomacy and related global issues at both political and senior management level in the EEAS, as well as at head-of-delegation level in EU delegations abroad. A declaration that recognises climate change as a priority in the work of the EEAS by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, or the corporate board of the EEAS could serve this purpose. Climate diplomacy could also be written into the mandates of all EU heads of mission. Greater political guidance and endorsement from both the foreign affairs council and the European Council would also help.
Deeper EEAS involvement in climate diplomacy need not encroach on the existing role of the European Commission, which ought to maintain its existing functions in the UN climate negotiations and related forums. But the Commission does not have the resources to build a network of climate officers across key EU delegations, and this is where the EEAS could add real value.
As Europe’s role in the world declines in relative – if not absolute – terms, the EU needs to work harder to shape governance processes beyond its borders, and must learn to do more with less. With global climate politics increasingly fragmented, the EU needs to become better at reaching out to partner countries, understanding their preferences and domestic politics, and working with progressive stakeholders in those countries. The EEAS is well-placed to contribute to this work, but remains an under-used element of European climate diplomacy.
Diarmuid Torney is a post-doctoral fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.