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20th Aug 2017

Countries want joint EU consulates, survey says

Several member states want the EU’s overseas embassies to provide joint consular services, an EU “audit” has found.

“All the member states, especially the smaller and medium-sized ones who do not have traditional embassies all over the world, were of the opinion … that EU representations should be the focal point where consular services could be done, including the issuing of visas and, especially, the protection of interests of EU citizens abroad”, Szabolcs Fazakas, a Hungarian member of the EU Court of Auditors, told press in Brussels on Monday (30 June).

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He spoke after sending out questionnaires to 15 EU states as part of a one-off study on the creation of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The list includes: Austria; Bulgaria; the Czech Republic, Cyprus; Estonia; Hungary; Italy; Latvia; the Netherlands; Poland; Portugal; Slovakia; Spain; Sweden; and the UK. Three did not reply, but the court does not say which ones.

Fazakas noted there is nothing in EU law to mandate consular co-operation.

He also said the EEAS “does not have the financial resources” in its current €520-million-a-year budget to launch such a scheme.

The auditors were forgiving of what they called the “fairly young” institution.

They noted the European Commission should take some of the blame for management problems because it runs large parts of EEAS day-to-day life in, for instance, human resources and IT.

They blamed member states for the foreign service’s “top-heavy” structure - it has more than twice the normal number of highly-paid officials - because EU states pushed to get top posts for seconded diplomats.

They did criticise EEAS chief Catherine Ashton’s management style, however.

The report says her decision to personally interview all candidates for top diplomatic posts wasted money because candidates often flew to Brussels only to find out she was too busy to see them after all (on 114 occasions).

It notes she has “23 direct reporting lines” to her office, instead of delegating.

It also says her staff often submitted documents “late” and at “short notice” before high-level meetings.

This was partly because the EEAS never drafted a “strategic framework” for EU foreign policy, meaning that each new foreign development prompted “intense debates” in Brussels.

But it was also due to bureaucracy.

The auditors said that before any document went out “the [internal] validation process took an average of four days and included up to five validators (deputy head of division, head of division, director, managing director, member of the corporate board) before reaching the cabinet, where there is a possibility that the text may be redrafted.”

They acknowledged that Ashton had plenty on her plate.

But they noted that she missed two-thirds of European Commission meetings. She did not once chair a group which brought together EU commissioners with foreign-linked portfolios, such as climate change or humanitarian aid.

The report also raised concerns on access to information.

It noted that just 70 out of 140 EU ambassadors have security clearance to read classified files. Only 23 out of 140 embassies have the IT systems to circulate files marked “confidential” or “secret”.

The audit cited replies by Ashton’s people.

The EEAS said “consular protection remains a national competence”. But it noted that EU embassies in Lebanon, in the Philippines, and in South Sudan did help to evacuate EU citizens whose countries did not have a mission in place.

It added that EU countries never gave Ashton “a clear mandate” to draw up a foreign policy strategy.

It also said the EEAS is doing “a complete reworking of the classified information systems … with the objective to transform the still heterogeneous current systems in one ‘EEAS Corporate’ system” which “should be operational in 2016”.

The Luxembourg-based Court of Auditors' reports are not binding, but its spokesman said EU institutions have a "good track record" of implementing recommendations.

He noted the EEAS will "probably" see another management audit three to five years from now.

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