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3rd Mar 2024

MEPs to oversee details of Ashton spending

  • Ms Ashton's plan to hire over 40 very highly paid new staff raised eyebrows in parliament (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament has won the right to look into the nitty gritty of spending in foreign delegations in the EU's new diplomatic service amid mild alarm over rising costs.

The provisional agreement was put together at an informal meeting between MEPs, EU officials and member states on Monday (11 October) and represents an easing of tensions between the assembly and Catherine Ashton's office after a dispute over diplomatic appointments last week.

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The financial regulations deal means that ambassadors in Ms Ashton's European External Action Service (EEAS) will in future give parliament "a detailed picture of all staff in place in the delegations" covering all pay-grades and locally-hired agents. Ambassadors will also provide annexes on "effectiveness of internal management and control systems put in place in their delegation."

The ambassadors will take personal responsibility for making sure that European Commission funds channeled through their offices are spent correctly.

The commission's internal auditing department will also audit EEAS funds and commission panels will be empowered to call on Ms Ashton to take disciplinary action against EU diplomats who misspend funds.

MEPs had on top of this asked for oversight of Ms Ashton's future part in spending the European Development Fund (EDF), a €3-billion-a-year aid pot paid into by member states. But the proposal was kicked forward as a possibility for the 2014 to 2020 budget period only.

An EU parliament official told EUobserver that the house aims to make sure the number of highly-paid staff in Ms Ashton's service does not quietly balloon in the coming years. "We want to know how many people each delegation employs at which grade, so that we can say: 'Hold on, why do you suddenly need these new AD12 posts here?'" the contact said.

Ms Ashton in September put the cat among the pigeons when she announced plans to hire 118 extra staff for the EEAS, 43 of whom are to be at the AD12 or higher grade earning at least €10,000 a month.

Her proposal envisages spending an extra €34.4 million a year on the EEAS compared to the existing cost of the EU foreign policy machine situated in the commission and the EU Council.

The proposal noted that the EEAS will in 2011 consist of 3,720 people - 1,643 fully-fledged staff and 2,077 seconded diplomats from member states and locally-hired helpers. Precisely €3.27 million of the additional spending will cover security measures for the EEAS' new headquarters in Brussels, namely "heavy technological platforms, secure meeting facilities and secure communications rooms."

Relations between Ms Ashton and MEPs turned sour last week when she cancelled a public hearing in the foreign affairs committee by her new envoy to Japan. The budgets committee later froze the funds needed for 18 new EEAS posts and the legal affairs committee put off a vote on introducing a quota-type system for EEAS staff from new member states.

A parliamentary source said Ms Ashton and the foreign affairs committee are working on a compromise that parts of EEAS ambassador hearings will be in public and part in private.

The parliament is due to formalise its position on EEAS budget and staff rules at its plenary session in Starsbourg next week.

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