Barroso aide appointed EU ambassador to Washington
The European Commission on Wednesday (17 February) nominated Joao Vale de Almeida, a close aide of Mr Barroso, as the EU's new ambassador in Washington, after a gap of over three months in which the executive had no representative in the US capital.
Mr de Almeida, 53, served as head of cabinet of commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and was his personal envoy to the so-called G8 and G20 summits of the most industrialised countries. In June last year, the Portuguese was appointed head of the commission's external relations unit which is about to be bolstered in the form of a diplomatic service under the EU's new rulebook, the Lisbon Treaty.
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The Washington post had been vacant since end of October 2009 when former ambassador John Bruton ended his five-year mandate. The EU commission was unable to appoint anyone else since, because it was in caretaker mode after its own mandate expired at the same time.
"The decision ...to appoint the highest senior official in charge of external relations to be our representative in Washington, testifies to our political commitment to enhance and deepen the transatlantic relationship in a crucial moment for bilateral relations and global governance," Mr Barroso said in a statement.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, to whom Mr de Almeida will report directly, praised his "significant experience," "intellect" and "ability to work with all key actors in this important relationship."
EU-US relations have recently been strained by the rejection in the European Parliament of a transatlantic bank data transfer deal, which Washington deems crucial for the fight against terrorism. Prior to that, US president Barack Obama declined to attend a regular bilateral meeting with EU, citing agenda domestic agenda problems.
The key appointment was approved by all 27 EU commissioners during their first meeting after being confirmed by the European Parliament last week. Asked why member states did not have a say in the matter, since they are supposed to feed diplomats to the new diplomatic service, a spokesman for the commission replied that the new architecture "doesn't exist yet" and the executive still had the competence to make those decisions.
EU diplomats confirmed that the proposal was formally put forward by Ms Ashton and that member states were given notice in advance: "It's a transitional phase, as the new service which will have posts open for national diplomats is not yet in place," an EU diplomat told this website. "We're not going to get upset every time another country or the commission gets their people in place," the source added.
Pending the approval of the US authorities, Mr de Almeida will continue in the following months to lead the external relations directorate and "assist" Ms Ashton in setting up the diplomatic service. He will also represent Mr Barroso in the preparations of the G8 and G20 summits in June.
"It's a bit unfortunate we didn't continue to send political heavyweights like the former Irish Prime Minister [John Bruton] to Washington," Ulrike Guerot from the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think tank told EUobserver.
She added that Mr de Almeida is a "very prestigious civil servant" and an ally of Mr Barroso, who will work to safeguard commission influence in Ms Ashton's new diplomatc corps.