Ashton secures deal on new diplomatic service
By Honor Mahony
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has finalised her blueprint for the EU's first ever diplomatic service after the European Commission on Wednesday (24 March) agreed to give her key powers over the EU's multi-billion euro annual development budget.
According to UK daily The Guardian, Ms Ashton will be in charge of regional and country strategy in the development field. The service, expected to contain around 7,000 people when it is fully established, will also be in charge of drawing up the strategic priorities for the EU's neighbourhood policy, dealing with countries on its borders.
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These two areas had been the subject of a fierce battle between Ms Ashton and the commission, which had been determined to hang on to as many of its powers as possible.
According to an EU official, the deal represents a "workable compromise" with the external action service involved in three of the five steps of the planning cycle for development, while the commission is in charge of two.
Under the set-up, Ms Ashton will head the service and also be responsible for appointing its staff, which the treaty specifies should be divided equally among the commission, the council and member states. Staff are to have the same rights and obligations whether they come from the commission, the council secretariat or from national diplomatic services.
The blueprint, expected to be circulated today, comes a week earlier than had been expected. But it still needs to be agreed by member states, while MEPs have co-decision powers over staffing and financial rules, which need to be changed to accommodate the service.
Deputies have raised concerns about the secretary general of the new corps, saying that in the proposed set-up the person will be too powerful and will lack political accountability. The parliament is also arguing that Ms Ashton, who has a busy and often conflicting schedule, needs political deputies to represent her in the meetings she is unable to personally attend.
This in turn has raised concerns from the part of some member states who believe the parliament will try and play political games with the deputies, dictating which political family they come from.
Meanwhile, member states are concerned that commission officials are dominating the service. Governments are already lining up to get a national into key jobs. Around six CVs have been sent in for the job of head of the EU delegation in China. In addition, a group of 11 smaller member states, led by Austria, has clubbed together to complain about representation in the service. They say they will only have a few diplomats each, with the service slated to have around 100 places for national diplomats at the beginning.
Ms Ashton has said she is aware of the need for the balance in the staff but said it will take time to make it happen, with the service expected to take some years before it fully equipped.
The British peer had been hoping to have agreement on the blueprint by the end of next month. However, the potential disputes mean the technical decisions to get the service up and running, such as on the staffing regulation, may see it delayed to summer or early autumn.