20th Sep 2019

MEPs pressure member states on diplomatic service

  • The European Parliament is keen to maintain the institutional power balance (Photo: EUobserver)

MEPs are rushing to establish the European Parliament's formal position on the union's fledgling diplomatic service amid fears that member states will create a body that is beyond democratic scrutiny and control.

Euro-deputies are keen to have the service attached to the European Commission and part of the overall community budget rather than an independent service only answerable to, and funded by, national governments.

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A diplomatic service is one of the major innovations of the proposed Lisbon Treaty, along with an EU foreign minister and a permanent president of the European Council.

A draft report on the issue, due to be voted on in plenary on 22 October, urges the commission to make use of the fact it has quasi-veto power over the formal decision by member states to establish the service.

"The External Action Service (EAS) should be administratively and budget-wise within the Commission, formally a part of the Commission," said German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok, in charge of drawing up the report, on Tuesday (6 September).

According to British Liberal deputy Andrew Duff the diplomatic service should be a "sui generis body attached to the Commission."

MEPs are also calling for the service, whose exact shape and size still has to be fixed, to be staffed on the basis of "merit, expertise and excellence" and for "balance" in representation from the Commission, the Council - representing member states - and national diplomatic services.

Foreign minister hearing

The issue is set to cause a power scuffle with national governments. Member states – only slowly waking up to the foreign policy implications of the treaty - are reluctant to let parliament dictate the terms of the diplomatic service.

"This is not something that has great support in the Council," Swedish Europe minister Cecilia Malmstrom told this website when asked about making the service part of the commission's structure.

But the parliament, which only has the right to be consulted by member states on the diplomatic service, believes it can influence the proceedings by playing hardball during its hearing of the foreign minister.

"This is the preparatory report. We will then have the hearing of the candidate for vice-president of the commission and foreign minister," said Mr Duff, referring to the fact that the new foreign minister will also be a member of the commission.

"We'll fail to support him. We've drawn blood before and we will do it again," the MEP, in charge of the hearings procedure, said.

The European Parliament conducts hearings on the suitability of all members of the college of the commissioners and set a precedent in 2004 by rejecting an Italian nominee. This created a shift in the balance of power between the institutions which MEPs have been keen to build on ever since.

The issues raised by the creation of a diplomatic service go to the heart of the union's perennial struggle between those who want an EU foreign policy that is a result of intergovernmental co-operation and those who want a "communitarian" approach, with the involvement of the commission and MEPs.

Blair manuouevre

The foreign service is just one point of unclarity in a list of several created by the Lisbon Treaty, which looks set to come into force early next year.

Another issue is the exact job description of the proposed president of the European Council. Smaller countries fear the creation of a powerful post run by large member states.

Yesterday, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg circulated a confidential memo calling for the post to maintain the "institutional balance" of the union, according to the Irish Times.

The memo also calls for "someone who has demonstrated his commitment to the European project." This is being interpreted as a move against former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has been increasingly mentioned as a contender for the job.

Poland has also indicated it may be unhappy with the Blair candidacy. "We are not interested in a celebrity. It should be someone who is willing to spend a lot of time carrying out shuttle diplomacy among member states and talking to the commission in search of compromises," Polish EU affairs minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz told EUobserver.

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