22nd Jan 2021

Belgium outlines ideas on EU diplomatic appointments

  • Mr De Ruyt (r) with the Belgian EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy (Photo:

The incoming Belgian EU presidency has signaled it is ready to help EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton in the tricky task of allocating top jobs in the EU's diplomatic corps.

With the creation of the External Action Service (EAS) plotting uncharted waters, it remains to be seen how Ms Ashton will decide who becomes her secretary general or who runs her most important foreign missions.

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Under post-Lisbon Treaty rules, she is to have sole legal power of appointments. Realistically speaking, it is expected that the best posts will be handed out in a classic EU back-room deal involving member states, rather than through an open competition.

Wary of treading on Ms Ashton's toes, Belgium's EU ambassador, Jean De Ruyt, in an interview with EUobserver indicated that some member states need to be convinced the EAS will work well. "The British and the Germans need to be reassured, otherwise they will continue to have an independent foreign policy and everything will collapse," he said.

European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy will also "want to have a say," he added.

The ambassador predicted that the European Parliament will give a green light in June to launching the new institution, meaning the appointments talks could take place in July.

He said the "package" of top posts could include the EAS secretary general; two deputy secretary generals; six director generals; a number of prestigious heads of delegation such as for New York and Beijing; the head of the Political and Security Committee; and the chairs of 20-or-so EU Council working groups handling foreign relations.

The best jobs will not automatically go to the UK, Germany and France, he noted. But he added that personal merit is more important than geographic balance: "You need very good people in these positions because if we do not have them then it will never work."

Mr De Ruyt declined to comment on individual names.

Speaking to other sources, EUobserver has learnt that the French ambassador to Washington, Pierre Vimont, is still favourite to become secretary general. Other names in the running for top posts include Robert Cooper, a former British diplomat who works in the EU Council; the Dutch EU ambassador, Tom de Bruijn; Polish EU affairs minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz; Christoph Heusgen, an aide to German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and Stefano Sannino, an Italian official in the European Commission.

Belgium's Mr De Ruyt aims to shift chairmanship of all EU Council working groups on foreign relations to the EAS by 2011, saying: "Our ambition is to make sure that the working presidency no longer has anything to do with external relations by the end of our term."

Division of labour

In other areas, Belgium and Ms Ashton have already tidied up who is to host which summits.

All bilateral EU summits with non-EU countries will take place in the EU Council's Justus Lipsius building in Brussels or in those countries' capitals. Multilateral summits will be held in the EU presidency capital, such as the EU-Asem summit in October when Belgium is to play host to leaders from over 40 Asian countries at the Belgian King's residence in Brussels. It has been planning the Asem event for over two years.

Belgium will also host a "Gymnich" - an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers - at its Palais d'Egmont building in Brussels in September.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy statements are to be made exclusively by Ms Ashton. "We will not publish any EU communiques which bypass her office," Mr De Ruyt said.

The clear chain of command should put an end to glitches seen during the current Spanish EU presidency, which has tried to rule the roost in terms of EU relations with its former colonies, and which sometimes competed with Ms Ashton in the role of EU spokesperson.

June elections

Asked if the Belgian government problem could complicate his plans, Mr De Ruyt voiced confidence that any new administration will support the presidency's efforts.

Belgium is likely to start its EU chairmanship under a caretaker government after snap elections in June. The situation means that some of its key ministers, such as veteran finance chief Didier Reynders, could be replaced by individuals from a new coalition.

"I cannot speak for the new government when it comes. But I am sure they will honour the appointment to Ecofin [an EU Council body dealing with financial issues] of one of the best," the ambassador said. "I think the other countries trust us to take the presidency seriously."

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