22nd May 2022

Ashton calls off EU ambassador hearings

Foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has called off plans for EU ambassadors to hold hearings in the European Parliament in a serious rift with MEPs over the set-up of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Ms Ashton announced the move late on Monday (4 October) on the eve of the first hearing with the new EU envoy to Japan, Austrian diplomat Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, which was due to have taken place in the parliament's foreign affairs committee on Tuesday morning.

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  • Ms Ashton. 'She refuses to be bullied [by MEPs] any more' an EU official said (Photo: European Parliament)

The decision comes after MEPs opted to hold the hearings in public and before the nominees have been formally installed in their posts, raising the risk that if one of them tripped up in questioning it could cost them their new job.

"The High Representative and Vice President [HR/VP] intends to live up to her commitment that the new heads of delegation will appear before the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee prior to moving to their posts. However, this has to be done in a fit and proper manner," her spokesman Darren Ennis said.

"It is the HRVP's wish that if these hearings eventually take place, they should take place as previously agreed with parliament, in camera. The HR/VP reminds everybody that these hearings are in no way so-called Congressional-style hearings," he added, referring to the US Congress, which has the legal power to veto the State Department's diplomatic nominations.

"The HR/VP holds the European Parliament in high regard and she has committed to this process. For their part, she hopes the foreign affairs committee will live up to its responsibilities."

The Ashton move comes at a sensitive time in the EEAS launch process.

MEPs in the legal affairs committee are on Thursday set to vote whether or not to include soft quotas, dubbed "indicative recruitment targets," for Central and Eastern European personnel in EEAS staff regulations. The budgetary affairs committee last week voted to give parliament oversight on details of EEAS military spending in what Ms Ashton already saw as overstepping the mark of an informal agreement on parliament's EEAS role.

The heads of the foreign affairs committee were not available for comment on Monday. But if the dispute is not resolved swiftly the original idea of getting the EEAS up and running by 1 December will go up in smoke.

Ms Ashton's office is ploughing ahead with recruitment for other senior diplomatic postings and the top administrative jobs in her service regardless of the parliamentary problem.

EUobserver understands that German European Commission official Gunnar Wiegand is the favourite candidate to take the influential post of "Managing Director for Russia, the Eastern Neighbourhood and the Western Balkans."

Mr Wiegand, like the current EU envoys to Moscow and Ukraine, does not speak Russian despite the post requiring frequent travel to the region. A contact in Ms Ashton's office brushed off the issue, saying: "If we have a manager for Russia and the Western Balkans, do you know how many languages he would have to speak?"

Sticking to the Union's eastern front, the upcoming nomination for EU ambassador to Belarus has attracted "intense interest" with 45 applicants for the post. The new envoy is unlikely to be in place for Belarus' elections on 19 December.

Potential names for another sensitive posting, the new EEAS director in charge of the Middle East, include: French EU commission official Hugues Mingerelli; Swedish EU official Christian Leffler; the Belgian EU Special Representative for the Middle East, Marc Otte; and Spanish EU official Tomas Dupla del Moral.

Meanwhile, British foreign minister William Hague on Monday quashed gossip in Britain that Labour Party politician David Miliband is to take over Ms Ashton's own job next year. "Cathy Ashton is doing a really fantastic job and won't be going anywhere," he told the Financial Times.

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