4th Jun 2023

Ashton to face tough questions from EU ministers

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is preparing for a showdown with foreign ministers on Monday (23 May) about nagging problems in her European External Action Service (EEAS).

The service's future budget and the work of overseas EU delegations are among sensitive issues to feature in the lunchtime debate. The stock-taking exercise - 18 months into Ashton's mandate - comes after a lacerating attack on the high representative by one EU foreign minister two weeks ago.

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Austria and the three Benelux countries have submitted papers on how they feel the effectiveness of the service can be improved, with a list of proposals also expected from Ashton's side.

Austria's paper, seen by EUobserver, begins by saying: "Close co-operation between the diplomatic services of member states and the EEAS in Brussels and in third countries is the prerequisite for the Union's success in joint external action." It notes several times the need for better "information exchange" and calls for better distribution of sensitive documents, blaming current problems on "security concerns and restrictions at EU delegations".

Austria also calls for greater "trust" between EU and member state embassies. "EU delegations sometimes seem to 'clean' their own reports submitted to the EEAS headquarters before sharing them with member states, which has led to certain irritations," it says.

The Benelux paper makes similar points, according to a source familiar with it.

Referring to the various heads of the the European Council, European Commission and the EEAS, the Benelux source said: "There must be better co-ordination between EU institutions in relation to international events. It's ridiculous that Van Rompuy, Barroso and Ashton all issue different communiques."

Consular work and the basic structure of the EU's diplomatic corps needs to be improved, the source added: "Have you seen the organigram? It's not at all clear who is talking to whom."

Monday's debate comes amid a recent wave of Ashton-bashing.

In an interview with Belgian daily Le Soir earlier this month Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere spoke of his "frustration", saying he found "the [foreign policy] analysis prepared by the staff of Ashton rather disappointing".

France is among others chiding the EU less openly over its response to the Arab spring. "We expect she will answer these criticisms on Monday," a diplomat from a large member state noted.

Compounding tensions, austerity-era EU capitals were "stunned" when Ashton asked for a 5.8 percent increase in her budget last month.

A diplomat from a mid-sized EU country linked the bad atmosphere to the budget debate: "We do not think that criticism now is by chance, coming just ahead of EU negotiations on the long-term multi-annual budget. When you discuss money, it's the moment of truth."

Ashton herself is expected to say how she will better manage her monthtly EU forieign ministers' meetings.

A senior EU official close to the high representative said she plans to take a less-is-more approach, possibly limiting the length of ministers' interventions in future.

"We don't want to keep adding items to the agenda so that there is no time for discussion. We must pick a list of priority topic," the source said. "Ministers can see how many minutes they have taken up, but it hasn't gone further than that yet," the official explained.

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