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22nd May 2022

EU parliament to arm-twist Ashton on appointments

  • Ms Ashton: the Georgia case shows the complexity of finding the right man or woman for each post (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Two senior MEPs have indicated that the European Parliament will leverage its legal powers to make sure Catherine Ashton gets the "right balance" of top people in the diplomatic corps.

Ms Ashton, the EU foreign relations chief, is getting ready to unveil her nominations for 31 heads of mission and deputy heads of mission for EU embassies abroad, as well as a further 80 senior diplomatic postings and the top 20-or-so administrative jobs in the European External Action Service (EEAS).

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EUobserver understands she plans to reveal the first tranche of 31 names, which cover important missions such as Brazil, China, Georgia, Japan and South Africa, shortly after coming back from her trip to China on 5 September.

The follow-up round of 80 nominations, including a new head of mission in Belarus and deputy heads in Ethiopia, Indonesia and the Palestinian territories, will not be ready until November. It is unclear when the 20-or-so administrative nominations will come out. But Ms Ashton has set herself a deadline of 1 December, a symbolic date one year after the entry into life of the Lisbon Treaty, to get the EEAS up-and-running.

The EU parliament before its summer recess already used its Lisbon Treaty powers to pressure Ms Ashton into granting it a set of privileges, such as the right to interview would-be ambassadors and to say Yes or No to the EEAS annual budget.

Under Lisbon, MEPs must legally approve changes to the EU institutions' staff and budget regulations before Ms Ashton can hire her new team.

A parliament rapporteur on the EEAS, Polish centre-right MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, told EUobserver on Tuesday (31 August) that the assembly's final approval is not a done deal.

"The second half of the game is still ahead of us," he said, using a soccer analogy for the upcoming negotiations.

Mr Saryusz-Wolski said MEPs aim to put forward their draft proposal for the staff and budget regulations in late October and to close the deal in four-way talks with Ms Ashton, member states and the European Commission in November.

He suggested Ms Ashton is delaying the nomination process in order to try and get the MEPs' approval in the bag first. "I believe perhaps that this is why she is waiting," he said. He threatened to use time-pressure to make sure parliament gets its say on the top posts: "She wants to have everything ready by 1 December. But we can wait."

Mr Saryusz-Wolski has in the past argued that a significant chunk of senior EEAS jobs should go to candidates from post-Communist EU states.

A parliament negotiator on the EEAS regulations, German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok, told EUobserver that another chunk should go to European Commission candidates so that the EEAS becomes a genuine EU body instead of an inter-governmental one. "There needs to be a proper institutional balance. If all the posts come from the member states and the Council, then we will have a problem," he warned.

He added that parliament aims to call around 10 out of the top diplomatic nominations for hearings: "If someone goes before the European Parliament and it is a total disaster, then it will be difficult for Ms Ashton to keep them."

Who goes where?

In an insight into Ms Ashton's work, sources in the EU institutions said that five applicants came under serious consideration for the Georgia job: former Bulgarian premier Philip Dimitrov; a Danish-origin European Commission official in charge of the body's policy for post-Soviet countries, John Kjaer; the current French ambassador to Georgia, Eric Fournier; Latvia's ambassador to the EU, Normunds Popens; and Poland's ambassador to Romania, Wojciech Zajaczkowski.

Two sources said Mr Fournier is a favourite because of his star performance in helping put together French President Nicolas Sarkozy's peace plan during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. But France is unpopular in Tbilisi because the peace plan gave Russia a mandate to keep its army indefinitely on Georgian territory.

The Latvian and Polish candidates are problematic because Riga and Warsaw took a strongly pro-Georgia position in the war and their arrival could harm EU diplomacy with Russia.

Meanwhile, the Georgian foreign ministry is being kept in the dark on who Ms Ashton might send.

Tbilisi would prefer an EU ambassador who carries influence inside the EU institutions in order to press ahead on technical issues such as the EU-Georgia Association Agreement and free trade arrangements.

It does not know how the new head of mission will divide up turf with the EU's existing two special representatives on Georgia - Swedish diplomat Peter Semneby, handling EU-Georgia integration, and French diplomat Pierre Morel, in charge of faltering Georgia-Russia peace talks.

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