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18th Sep 2021

Ashton drops big ideas on EU foreign service

The EU's foreign policy chief has said member states are not willing to give her what it takes for major reform of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Speaking to MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday (12 June), Catherine Ashton outlined a modest set of ways to do EU foreign relations better.

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She said her service should have a clear role in crafting the "strategic orientation" of European Commission projects in development and neighbourhood policy.

She backed the creation of new deputies to represent her in European Parliament hearings and on some overseas trips.

She also said decision-making protocols on EU military and civilian crisis missions "need to speed up."

On the subject of deputies, she noted: "I can remember a very sad day when I went to five countries in one day but I was still criticised for not being in the United States."

The three proposals are set to feature in her upcoming EEAS review paper.

But they fall far short of bigger ideas recently put forward by France, Germany and some MEPs.

France in March said the EEAS should co-ordinate EU countries' consular services and should hire security specialists for delegations in foreign hotspots.

Germany said the foreign service should take control of the commission's multi-billion-euro development and neighbourhood budgets.

A report by two MEPs - Germany's Elmar Brok and Italian Roberto Gualtieri - called for EU countries to take foreign policy decisions by majority instead of unanimity and for the creation of an EU military operations HQ.

On consular services and security specialists, Ashton on Wednesday noted that EU nations are not willing to put their money where their mouth is.

She said: "Resources are the key in discussions on any new areas of activity, including consular protection and increased security reporting in delegations, areas at the moment where we have limited expertise and experience. These changes won't happen overnight."

She did not even mention the development/neighbourhood budget, majority voting or military HQ proposals.

She instead highlighted there are limits to how much EU countries really want to do joint foreign relations.

"We must not delude ourselves. The Lisbon treaty left CFSP [Common Foreign and Security Policy] as an intergovernmental instrument which is subject to unanimity in decision-making. In a situation where there is absence of political will or of agreement between member states, there is a limit to what the EEAS can deliver," she said.

MEPs who took the floor on Wednesday praised Ashton for building the EEAS as an institution.

Belgian deputy Annemie Neyts-Uyttenbroeck called it "a little miracle, in which we should rejoice" that she got it up and running in under three years.

Even Ashton critics - such as Charles Tannock, from Britain's ruling Conservative Party - also gave her kudos for brokering a peace deal between Kosovo and Serbia.

But Tannock warned that London will never give up its veto on EU foreign policy.

He called Brok and Gualtieri's idea an "institutional power-grab" and voiced incredulity that British soldiers could be sent to a conflict zone by "qualified majority voting."

MEPs also needled Ashton for having too many highly-paid staff.

Out of her 950 senior officials, 502 are in the AD12 to AD14 bracket, commanding basic salaries of €10,000 to €15,000 a month.

"I don't think any other EU institution has such a number of high-ranking posts," German deputy Ingeborg Graessle, a budget specialist, noted.

Ashton promised to cull some of them next year.

She noted she has almost hit her target for hiring people from eastern European member states and more than doubled the number of women in senior posts.

She also noted her service often gets "bad publicity for all the wrong reasons."

Taking the example of its Barbados delegation, which employs 44 people and which is a favourite target for jibes on EU skivers, she said it has just nine EU staff and 35 local assistants to manage a €250-million-a-year aid budget for 10 countries.

MEPs chide Portugal and Council in EU prosecutor dispute

The Belgian and Bulgarian prosecutors who were appointed had also not been the experts' first choice. Belgian prosecutor Jean-Michel Verelst has challenged the council's decision at the European Court of Justice.

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