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16th May 2022

Ashton presents outline of diplomatic service

  • Statue outside the Charlemagne building in the EU quarter in Brussels, the current home of the EU commission's foreign relations branch (Photo: guppiefish)

In a bid to convince the European Commission to sign up to her plans for a European diplomatic service, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has been forced to make an awkward power-sharing compromise in development policy, worth billions of euros annually.

Announcing the proposals on Thursday (25 March) a week earlier than expected, the EU's top diplomat said the service would "strengthen the coherence and effectiveness of the EU's global role."

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Since taking up her post in December, Ms Ashton has been struggling to manage the competing views of member states and the European Commission over the content and scope of the service.

One of the most bitter battles concerned the EU's development policy, whose €30 billion fund across six years has until now been managed by the commission.

The published blueprint attempts to draw a line under this struggle. Ms Ashton and her diplomatic service will be in charge of the development budget, controlling how much money a country would get as well as having the "strategic overview," while the commission would manage the implementation of the policy.

In essence, Ms Ashton would be the policy maker and the commission the agent that implements it.

But the lines of decision-making have been blurred because the blueprint stresses that development decisions should be "prepared" by both the service and the commission under the "direct supervision and guidance" of Andris Piebalgs, the development commissioner.

A similarly cumbersome arrangement has also been suggested for the EU's neighbourhood policy, another area over which the commission was reluctant to abandon control.

MEPs, smarting at the fact that Ms Ashton has not taken on board their suggestion to limit the purview of the powerful secretary-general position by appointing political figures to deputise her, called it a "recipe for incoherence."

Denying that that the proposed set-up would lead to infighting, Ms Ashton said she considered it the "perfect solution of synergy between ...the role of the commissioners and the role of the External Action Service."

The British peer also said she would try to ensure geographical balance in the service, a point repeatedly made by eastern European member states, as well as to ensure that sufficient numbers of women make it into the corps.

Geographical balance

Poul Skytte Christoffersen, a Danish career diplomat who is now her top aide, admitted he was "surprised" how strongly the member states felt about proper representation in the service but said the idea had now "penetrated" the thinking on the new institution.

Preliminary scrutiny of job seekers will be carried out by an advisory panel with representatives from the commission, council and member states. The final decision on the subsequent shortlist will be taken by Ms Ashton, who will then take into account geography and gender.

An explanatory note on the service outline suggests that officials should be regularly rotated and that Ms Ashton will "take steps" to set up "common training" for diplomats within a year of the service being established.

It also outlines the chain of command, saying that the heads of the EU's 136 delegations abroad are answerable to Ms Ashton and are responsible for the day-to-day running of their embassies.

However, in another potential muddle, a draft staff regulation - a legal document which has to be altered to accommodate the service - notes that the heads of delegation will sometimes also have to take orders from the commission, when their work concerns commission business.

Ms Ashton's proposal needs to be approved by member states. The European parliament also has a de facto veto as it needs to agree to changes to the financial and staff regulations - the latter to allow national diplomats to be a part of the service.

MEPs' reactions to the proposals so far have been universally critical. A joint statement by centre-right, Socialist, Liberal and Green deputies said "the proposal is not acceptable to the parliament" and threatened not to approve the technical changes allowing the establishment of the service.

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