25th Oct 2016

Commission still pulls the strings on EU foreign policy

  • Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and Ashton. EU ambassador: 'We were told: 'You have the mike, but we have the money'' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

A new deal between the European Commission and Catherine Ashton sheds light on how much power the EU executive still has on foreign relations.

Coming one year after the launch of her European External Action Service (EEAS), the so-called inter-service agreement - a 40-page paper dated 13 January and seen by EUobserver - details who does what in the EU's day-to-day dealings with foreign countries.

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It says the commission and the EEAS "jointly" plan overall spending strategies on the Union's €9.5-billion-a-year external relations budget.

But development commissioner Andris Piebalgs, neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele and aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva keep full control of designing and implementing actual projects in the 104 countries and the €7.5 billion covered by their portfolios.

"The EEAS shall refrain from taking any measures ... on issues which fall under commission competence," the agreement says.

The commission also has part-control of three crisis management and pro-democracy funds - the so-called EIDHR, IfS and CFSP, worth another €1 billion.

Ashton proposes EIDHR and IfS projects, but then Piebalgs' people take over and draft the final blueprints, while keeping EEAS staff "informed" and inviting them to meetings.

Ashton also proposes CFSP projects, but a commission office - the Service for Foreign Policy Instruments [FPI] - writes the assessment study used by EU countries to decide which ones go forward and writes the final blueprint.

On top of this, commission officials oversee how Ashton spends her €500-million-a-year internal budget.

The service pact says her ambassadors "will be tasked with timely, accurate and reliable reporting to the relevant commission AOD [Authorising Officer by Delegation], according to intervals and format decided on by the commission."

It adds that commission auditors are to be "involved on a permanent and ongoing basis, in virtually all the aspects of the financial administration of the EEAS."

The commission even has power over Ashton's media relations.

Its FPI handles the EEAS press and communications budget. The commission decides if she gets a spot on its internet TV channel - the European Broadcasting Service - and its spokespeople must be told "in a timely manner" if she wants to do a press release.

Meanwhile, Ashton's ambassadors spend much of their time taking instructions from and drafting reports for Piebalgs, Fuele and Georgieva's officials, as well as doing the paperwork on the commissioners' projects in their role as "sub-delegated" accounting officers.

'In the driver's seat'

Ashton spokesman Michael Mann said the inter-service pact does not diminish the EU diplomatic corps' authority.

He said the EEAS is "in the driver's seat" in terms of spending strategies, while the commission does "budget implementation."

He added that "the heads of delegation are in charge of the whole activity of their delegation" and that "in a national embassy it would also be logical for an ambassador to receive instruction from and to give feedback to a line ministry, while keeping the MFA [ministry of foreign affairs] in copy."

An EU head of delegation - who asked to remain anonymous - described the inter-service arrangements as "cumbersome" and "slow," however.

In one example, if the EEAS wants to release up to €20 million in emergency funds the decision must go through Ashton's secretary general, her private office, the FPI, "relevant" commission services and the Political and Security Committee (a group of EU countries' ambassadors).

Mann said the process takes one week.

The head of delegation noted: "It takes about a month and this is supposed to be our fastest instrument."

The contact added that there is a political split between the EEAS, which wants to use development aid to support political goals, and Piebalgs' people, who take a "Biblical" view that aid money should only help the poor.

"We were told: 'You have the mike, but we have the money. You can make statements and say whatever you like, but we control the money' ... I don't mind having so many bosses [taking instructions from various commissioners], but what's important to me is that they act as a team. I don't think they talk to each other," the EU ambassador said.


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