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18th Aug 2019

Ministers identify glitches in EU diplomatic service

  • Ashton at a press briefing in Brussels - ministers want yearly agendas on EU foreign policy (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Twelve member states have said bureaucracy and bad management are hampering the effectiveness of the EU's new diplomatic service one year after its launch.

The foreign ministers of Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden put forward their ideas in an informal three-page paper dated 8 December and seen by EUobserver.

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While couched in polite language, the text strikes raw nerves in Brussels on issues including turf battles between the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS), EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton's handling of ministerial meetings and her purported neglect of security affairs.

Under current arrangements, Ashton's service is responsible for framing EU foreign policy and managing joint relations with non-EU countries via 140 foreign delegations. But the European Commission is responsible for funding foreign programmes and for handling many day-to-day EEAS matters, such as making sure Ashton's people have working computers on their desks and get their expenses on time.

The hybrid set-up has created problems such as forcing Ashton's foreign ambassadors to do book-keeping on commission spending over which they have no decision-making powers. It has also seen around 60 EEAS staff leave their posts amid frustration that they do not have the basic tools for their job.

"Does the EEAS have the right organisational structure to ensure effective co-operation with the commission on all external action aspects? ... An EU delegation can function effectively only if the head of delegation receives all necessary information in good time and can fully focus on political priorities, and if a delegation can manage its administrative expenditures efficiently," the ministers said.

On a more personal note, they indicated Ashton has done a poor job of chairing their regular monthly meetings.

Brussels is awash with anecdotes about the EEAS sending out agendas at too short notice for ministers to prepare properly and about Ashton chafing with colleagues. In one episode in March last year she called ministers to the EU capital ahead of a snap summit on Libya then said mid-meeting she had to leave. Sweden's Carl Bildt at the time reportedly told her to stay until the talks ended, with Ashton falling into line.

"Ways to further optimise the identification of political priorities should be explored," the 12 ministers said, urging her to circulate a yearly agenda for the events and "more regularly to produce preparatory policy and/or decision-making papers to be circulated sufficiently in advance."

With Ashton's staff in the crisis and military planning departments frequently complaining she does not give them enough weight, the ministers noted "the setting-up of a secure communications network should be a major priority" and that "the creation of defence and security attaches in EU delegations ... should be considered."

'Not criticism'

An EEAS spokesman told this website she does not see the ministers' paper "in any way as criticism of the EEAS" but rather as "a useful contribution" on how to do things better.

Following their intervention, Ashton herself drafted a 14-page study on how she sees the issues they raised.

The EEAS chief said basic co-operation between the commission and her staff is "satisfactory" and that the set-up "[has] not given rise to any systemic problems."

She noted the commission should give her people more information on foreign spending so that heads of delegation can fully exercise their authority and that EEAS ambassadors should do less paperwork, however.

She also agreed the EEAS needs to stand on its own feet in administrative terms. "There has been a consistent problem in reflecting the specific needs of delegation staff in commission-wide IT systems ... the service is struggling to meet even minimum standards in terms of activity-based management and financial programming, personnel policy, security and IT," she said.

Ashton pledged to do more on security. But she indicated that EU member states are not doing their bit to help her put new safeguards in place.

Her paper identified as a future priority "to ensure best standards in diplomatic security, in particular in EU delegations in high risk countries, and workable procedures for handling classified information." But it added that: "Given the limited resources, support from the services of member states is key. The aim is to have a security framework in place by early 2012."

In her own defence, she said the Arab Spring and the financial crisis are "hardly the ideal backdrop for the launch of a new service for the external relations of the Union."

But she identified her contacts with Arab countries on the Libya conflict, her efforts to relaunch Middle East peace talks, to get Iran back to the negotiating table and to get Kosovo and Serbia to speak to each other as some of her strong points in the past 12 months.

EEAS in numbers

Her paper also gave an overview of the EEAS in numbers.

Ashton noted that between 1 January and 9 November last year her office published 504 statements on EU foreign policy and held 80 minister-level talks with non-EU countries. It also handled 937 briefings with EU institutions in a similar period, including 243 by the EEAS chief personally.

The service currently has 1,551 staff in Brussels and 2,060 in its foreign embassies. Twenty five out of 27 EU countries are represented at ambassador-level and 30 women have senior posts.

Correction: the original version indicated the Ashton paper was an internal report. But it has been made public

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