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30th Sep 2023

Ashton eyes October for decision on top jobs

  • Mr Vimont (r) performing his ambassadorial duties in the US (Photo: jdb.marine.defense.gouv.fr)

Foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton is to shortly unveil the names of 31 new heads and deputy heads of EU delegations. But the 10 top jobs in the European External Action Service (EEAS) are to be doled out in October.

The British baroness is currently conducting interviews with the final two or three candidates for each of the 31 diplomatic posts and will announce the results en bloc before the EU's summer recess.

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The most prestigious placements are Brazil, China, Japan and South Africa. The list also covers several strategically-important missions such as Bosnia, Chad, Georgia, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan.

Member states that are too small to compete for the 10 first-tier EEAS jobs, or which are ineligible for other reasons, such as Belgium, which already has EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, will be looking to the diplomatic postings as a consolation prize.

Personal merit will also play a role. "She [Ms Ashton] knows the EEAS will stand or fall on the quality of heads of mission. The first generation of EEAS heads of mission will have a big job to do to give the service credibility," a senior EU diplomat said.

Ms Ashton plans to advertise the top 10 posts after EU foreign ministers sign off on the legal blueprint for the EEAS on 26 July. But she will be unable to make the appointments until EU institutions clear the 2010 salaries budget for the new body - worth €9.5 million - in a move expected in September.

The 10 posts are; the EEAS secretary general; two deputy secretary generals; an official in charge of budgets and personnel; the chair of the Political and Security Committee (PSC); the head of the SitCen intelligence-sharing bureau; and four directors general (DGs). One DG will handle a "thematic" directorate covering issues such as human rights and UN relations. The others will each take charge of a "geographic" directorate, splitting the globe into industrialised countries, developing countries and a final set including post-Soviet states, the Western Balkans and the Middle East.

Another 10 or so second-tier posts will come up for grabs at the same time.

Ms Ashton is considering a classic EU recruitment process consisting of joint interview panels with member states, EU commission and Council officials. But due process is likely to be outweighed by political considerations. "Member states have been lobbying vis-a-vis Ms Ashton from day one. She has a pile of papers on her desk proposing candidates," a contact in her inner circle told this website.

The constellation of names will keep changing over the summer. But as things stand, the French ambassador to the US, Pierre Vimont, is interested in the secretary general post, worth €216,000 a year. France is also fishing for the PSC job for its current PSC ambassador Christine Roger. A French EU official, Patrice Bergamini, is already the temporary head of SitCen and may be reluctant to let go the reins.

German EU official Helga Schmid is said to be a shoe-in for deputy secretary general. Berlin can expect little else - in the wider scheme of things, it already has the post of EU parliament secretary general and is in 2011 and 2012 expected to pick up the European Central Bank president, EU parliament president and EU Council secretary general jobs.

Poland, with the support of other Visegrad states, is pushing its junior minister for Europe, Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, for the other deputy secretary general post. A Polish secret service officer, whose name is being kept out of the press for security reasons and who is currently chairing a temporary working group on EEAS counter-intelligence systems, could also emerge as a candidate for the SitCen post.

Italian EU official Stefano Sannino is being talked about as a potential personnel and budgets chief.

As for the other major countries, the UK already has Ms Ashton and most of her cabinet, while Spain is considered to "have had its turn" after Spanish diplomat Javier Solana spent 10 years as her predecessor. On top of this, the Spanish foreign ministry antagonised Ms Ashton by competing for power during the Spanish EU presidency.

Smaller EU members are unlikely to give way softly to their big cousins, however. "There's a theory that says if the big countries run the EEAS they will not want to make it too effective so that it doesn't encroach on their turf," a diplomat from one smaller EU country said.

Veteran Irish EU officials Catherine Day and David O'Sullivan are being talked about as alternatives for the personnel and budgets role. Romania is reportedly competing with Poland for the deputy secretary general job and Swedish PSC ambassador Olof Skoog is also a runner for the PSC president post.

If Ms Ashton creates a new human rights supremo in the second tier of EEAS management, an Estonian EU official, Riina Kionka, could be in line for the role. The baroness has said several times she wants to see more women in high-level posts.

A few good men

In a final round of 2010 recruitment, Ms Ashton in the October to December period is also looking to hire 80-or-so extra diplomats to beef-up staff at strategic embassies, especially multilateral missions in Addis Abbaba, Geneva, New York and Vienna.

When she cuts the red ribbon on the EEAS headquarters on 1 December, probably in the Triangle building in the Schuman roundabout area of the EU quarter in Brussels, it will house around 500 senior officials and their assistants, all shifted en masse from the commission and the Council. EEAS foreign delegations will employ a further 400-or-so people holding a diplomatic rank.

Member states' diplomats will begin to feed into the service from 2011 onward, with the whole process of getting the EEAS on its feet causing confusion in foreign ministries.

"Does the fact that I did not submit my candidature previously (before the European Parliament got involved in the process) mean I won't be able to do it now? ... Will the whole process start from scratch now that we have a new legal blueprint? Do candidatures have to be submitted within the framework of the foreign ministries diplomats belong to?" one bewildered diplomat from a southern EU country emailed EUobserver asking for advice this week.

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