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24th Mar 2019

Member states to signal broad backing for diplomatic service blueprint

  • Catherine Ashton presented her blueprint late last month (Photo: Council of European Union)

EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday (26 April) are expected to send a signal of broad backing for foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's blueprint for a diplomatic service, but a formal decision on the matter depends on the - as yet unimpressed - European Parliament.

According to diplomats speaking on Thursday, member states are generally pleased with the service outline although some technical questions remain

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"The overwhelming sense is that the proposal is in the right place," said a diplomat from a large country. Another diplomat noted that while some questions still remained, there is a "broad agreement" for the outline. For her part, Ms Ashton is expected to try and "seek as great a degree of convergence as possible on Monday."

Among the remaining issues is the extent to which the service can offer consular services. While the fairly explicit language on this in the proposal is welcomed by small member states, others, such as Britain, believes it goes too far and want vaguer language.

Member states are also keen to make sure that they win their fair share of national diplomats in the service amid concerns it will initially be dominated by commission and Council officials. A key point for governments here is to make sure that national experts seconded from member states to deal with specific issues are not counted as part of the overall general quota.

There are also questions over the chain of command in certain instances, with the commission keen to be able to issue orders directly to delegations when it involves areas within its powers. Also up in the air is the extent to which heads of delegation are responsible for delegations' budgets.

But even if member states were to work their way through all the discussion points by late Monday, a formal political decision on the service cannot be taken until the parliament gives its opinion on the matter.

"To quite a large extent we are in the hands of the parliament," said a diplomat adding: "The parliament can certainly for a while refuse to give [its] opinion."

MEPs can hold progress on the diplomatic service to hostage by not giving its opinion now. But it also wields power in later stages because it has co-decision on changing the staff and financial rules to accommodate the service and establishing a budget for the service.

To date, deputies have been playing hardball saying the blueprint gives too much weight to governments and not enough to the commission.

"The proposal currently on the table ... does not promote a genuine European added value but rather the return of intergovernmentalism," said a statement released Wednesday by the main political groups in EU assembly."

"Unless and until the council and the commission are prepared to initiate real negotiations with parliament, no progress can be made on this important issue."

Among the chief concerns of the parliament is having full budgetary oversight over the service - something member states say is not in dispute. Governments are less sanguine about demands to incorporate service more into the commission, fearing it will give both the EU executive and parliament powers in areas where they do not have it such as foreign policy and defence.

However, Ms Ashton has tackled one concern of MEPs by suggesting the creation of a "board" of three directors to run the service. Deputies had previously complained that her original idea of having one secretary general would put too much power in the hands of one person, with German MEP Elmar Brok memorably referring to a spider sitting at the top of a web.

With no formal decision on Monday and complex negotiations between the commission, member states, council, Ms Ashton and parliament still to come, one diplomat estimated that the "whole package [will be] in place by autumn."

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