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27th Feb 2021

EU mandarins drafting blueprint for diplomatic corps

  • Celebrating enlargement in Brussels in 2004: just 117 out of 1,657 officials in the commission's foreign relations branch are from new member states (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Senior figures in the EU Council and the European Commission have filled the majority of seats on a committee responsible for designing the EU's diplomatic corps.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) will be built over the next two years on a blueprint to be put forward by EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton in late February or early March.

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Ms Ashton has created a "high-level group" of 13 people to advise her on the proposal. It held its first two meetings in January, with initial talks dominated by which bits of the commission budget, such as the €285 million a year Instrument for Stability or the €3 billion a year European Development Fund, the EEAS should gobble up.

The high-level group includes several of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in Brussels.

From the EU Council side, the secretary general, Pierre de Boissieu, known as "Cardinal Richelieu" by some EU officials after the French 17th century arch-manipulator, is on the panel. The director of the council's legal service, Jean-Claude Piris, its top military strategist, Robert Cooper and its top political brain, Helga Schmid, are also in.

On the commission front, there are: President Jose Manuel Barroso's right hand man, Joao Vale de Almeida; its secretary general, Catherine Day; the head of its 136 foreign delegations, Patrick Child; Ms Ashton's head of cabinet and veteran British diplomat, James Morrison; and the director of the commission's legal service, Luis Romero Requena.

Member states have four people: Spain's EU ambassador, Carlos Bastarreche; its top diplomat on security affairs, Carlos Fernandez Arias Minuesa; Belgium's EU ambassador, Jean de Ruyt; and Hungary's EU envoy, Gabor Ivan.

A source present at the meetings told EUobserver that the relatively inexperienced Ms Ashton is holding her own. "She's good at working the room, working the meeting so that everyone feels understood and then she takes her decisions," the contact said.

But the tight deadline for the proposal has given the commission more power. Mr Barroso stole the march on Ms Ashton by setting up an internal working group on the diplomatic service last autumn. Catherine Day's people are already putting forward legal documents for Ms Ashton's group to rubber stamp.

The influence of member states has been diluted by a proviso adopted by the committee in its first session. The four ambassadors take part "on an individual basis and do not represent or speak on behalf of Coreper," the clause says, referring to the formal body of 27 EU ambassadors, which meets in Brussels once a week.

Member states will get their say on the final proposal when it comes up for approval by foreign ministers in April. In the meantime, one of Ms Ashton's officials is giving regular briefings to Coreper to keep EU capitals on board.

MEPs will also get to approve the diplomatic corps' budget. But consultation is limited to occasional phone calls to German centre-right deputy Elmar Brok, on the parliament's foreign affairs committee.

Thorny bramble

One thorny little bramble for Ms Ashton will be ensuring that new member states get a satisfactory share of senior appointments.

The EU Council and the commission, which will furnish two-thirds of EEAS personnel, are currently dominated by people from old member states. Out of the commission's 1,657 foreign relations officials, 117 are from the 12 countries that joined the union after 2004. Just one of them, Hungarian diplomat Janos Herman in the commission's Norway embassy, holds a top-level post.

"The Brussels mafia has made sure that our dirty moustaches are kept out of this," one Polish-origin EU official said.

Hungary's ambassador, Mr Ivan, sees no bias in being the only person from a new EU country on Ms Ashton's French and British-led group. "I don't see any behaviour here against new member states," he told this website.

The diplomat, who has 20 years' experience dealing with Brussels going back to Hungary's pre-accession talks, promised to watch over the interests of new member states, however.

"In the composition of the EEAS there should be attention paid to geographic balance. It's true that new member states are relatively underrepresented in the foreign services of the commission and council. I will pay attention to these issues," he said.

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