28th Oct 2016

Member states agree diplomatic service outline

  • Member states are waiting for the thumbs up from parliament (Photo: European Parliament)

Member states on Monday (26 April) reached political agreement on the future shape of the EU's new diplomatic service, with the parliament seen as the biggest remaining obstacle to a formal go-ahead.

Announcing the breakthrough after lengthy negotiations, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said "Europe needs an External Action Service because it will help us to build a distinct 21st century European response."

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"[The service] will bring together in a joined-up way our response to the issues that we face in the world and promote comprehensive policies," she added.

Most of the negotiations on Monday focussed on how to ensure that member state diplomats are fairly represented in the EAS. The rules say that the service should be made up of an equal number of officials from the commission, the Council secretariat and member states, but governments are worried that it will take a long time before their quota is filled.

It was also agreed that the EAS will only offer limited consular services - an earlier more extensive role was reduced due to British misgivings - while the commission will have a say over candidates shortlisted to head the EU's 136 delegations around the world.

Formal agreement on the blueprint can only be given by member states once the European Commission gives its consent - seen as likely - and MEPs give their opinion on it.

Ordinarily member states would be more cavalier about the prospect of a non-binding opinion from MEPs on the diplomatic service's structure. But parliament's co-decision powers on issues further down the line, such as on changing staffing and financial rules, crucial to getting the service up and running, have given deputies a de facto veto.

Ms Ashton said Monday's agreement would allow her to "kick-start negotiations" with MEPs. She appealed to the EU assembly to play a "constructive role" noting that "parliament's powers and prerogatives are fully respected within the decision."

While the parliament will have budgetary oversight over the service and the power of the secretary general of the service has been watered down - both major points for MEPs - it will be a stand-alone body rather than an integral part of the commission, as deputies had called for.

Member states, some of whom are exasperated by MEPs playing hardball, believed putting the service under the commission's roof would give the parliament powers it does not have in the treaty, such as a say on defence and foreign affairs.

A meeting of the parliament's budgetary control committee on Monday illustrated the likely difficulty of the negotiations still to come.

German conservative MEP Ingeborg Graessle said the diplomatic service's independent status raises a whole series of "legal questions that would not be raised if it is part of the commission."

She pointed to the lack of clarity on who is responsible if EU money is misspent. It is "very important that only EU officials spend EU money," she noted, referring to fact that heads of delegation, who may be national diplomats, can sign off budgets for their delegations.

"We only have clear supervisory powers if the commission is responsible."

Bulgarian Socialist MEP Ivailo Kalfin noted that the decision to put the EAS in charge of strategic planning on development issues - with its billions-strong yearly budget - and the commission in charge of its implementation will blur the lines of responsibility.

"I am afraid that when we try and find the chain of responsibility, we shall face great difficulties," he said.

MEPs have an equal say with member states on changing the staff and financial rules in order to accommodate the service and on establishing a budget for it.

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