Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

EU ponders creation of new diplomatic breed

The phrase "EU diplomat says" regularly pops up in articles on EU foreign policy. But with the EU poised to launch its European External Action Service in the coming months, the question of what precisely is an EU diplomat is in the air in Brussels.

In journalistic usage, "EU diplomat" is a code used to conceal the identity of sources. It can mean a European Commission or EU Council official dealing with foreign affairs or a diplomat from one of the 27 EU countries. European Parliament officials and MEPs never get the label, even if they work on inter-parliamentary delegations around the world.

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  • 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein: EU diplomats will have to by wily, loyal to the blue-and-gold flag and up-to-speed on European history

Some Council and Commission officials have strong diplomatic credentials in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "diplomacy" - "the management of international relations by negotiation."

A Council official such as Robert Cooper, an aide to the former EU foreign relations chief, Javier Solana, over the past 10 years, is at the heart of EU foreign policy-making. He has a deep knowledge of how the EU machine works. Colleagues say that, with time, he has come to put the interests of the EU before those of his country of origin, the UK.

But he is not a diplomat in the strict sense of being granted a diplomatic rank and special privileges by his host state, Belgium, under the UN's 1961 Vienna Convention.

The EU's 11 special representatives (EUSRs), such as Pierre Morel on Central Asia, work for the EU institutions and do have diplomatic status both in Belgium and while on mission abroad. The same is true of the dozens of Seconded National Experts (SNEs) hired by the Council and Commission's foreign relations departments.

But the EUSRs and SNEs are borrowed from national foreign ministries for a limited period, prompting questions about their loyalty - most have one eye on future careers back home.

The Council and Commission also have 2,300-or-so staff with formal diplomatic status working at the EU's 138 foreign delegations.

Diplomats from member states tend to be a bit snooty about their credentials, however. Many Commission 'diplomats' have not attended a diplomatic academy and have no prior experience of embassy work, having instead passed the EU civil service exam and worked their way in from other departments. A case in point is Joao Vale de Almeida, a former journalist and Commission spokesman put in charge of the EU embassy to the US.

EU is 'not important'

The phrase "EU diplomat" can be even more misleading when referring to member states' officials posted to their embassies in Brussels or overseas.

It implies there is one diplomatic culture and one set of political objectives shared by the 27 EU capitals. In fact, each foreign ministry has its own school of protocol, code of ethics, pay scale and quirks, which often defy national stereotypes.

British diplomats are known for their foreign language skills. French diplomats are admired for strictness in sticking to instructions. The Spanish EU ambassador is known for good time-keeping. And for all the aristocratic history of Vienna, Austrian diplomats compare themselves to "salesmen."

The differences are the strongest when it comes to political objectives.

Member states' diplomats do daily battle in Brussels to protect national interests. Looking at the way 'EU' diplomats behave outside the EU, a veteran diplomat from one member state told this website: "What you see in the big emerging countries and in the US, is that each [EU] country defends its privileged relationship. When you talk to the Chinese or to the Indians they say: 'Yes, we have this EU summit once a year. But for the rest of the time, each of your countries comes and says the EU is not important'."

With the EEAS set to take off in autumn, people seeing the phrase "EU diplomat" in future news stories are likely to assume the source comes from inside the new body.

But with the corps set to bring together people such as Mr Cooper, Mr Morel, Mr Vale de Almeida and up to 5,000 other EU officials and member states diplomats, the office of EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton is wondering how to create a genuine EU diplomacy.

Back to school

Original plans to rotate EEAS staff in and out of foreign ministries and EU institutions every four years are already being abandoned in favour of longer contracts to cultivate an internal identity.

Ms Ashton, herself no diplomat by background, is also considering the creation of an EU diplomatic academy.

Initially, the academy will probably be based on existing schemes, such as the EU Council's European Security and Defence College, which sends member states' Brussels-based diplomats to military bases around Europe, and the European Diplomatic Programme, which sees each rotating presidency send colleagues for symposiums in its capital.

Later on, a new faculty could be tacked on to the College of Europe in Bruges and Warsaw or to the European Universities Institute in Florence. An independent outfit, the Brussels-based European Institute for International Relations (IERI), is also pitching for the work.

The question remains: what will the academy teach?

Effective diplomats have innate qualities which cannot be taught in a post-graduate course. They must be intellectually agile and culturally empathetic. "The ambassador [is] the man who [is] sent abroad to lie for the good of his country," the 19th century British historian, William Stubbs, said.

But a true EU diplomat must also adhere to the EEAS chain of command and to develop new antennae for threats to EU interests, IERI founder and sociologist Irnerio Seminatore told EUobserver.

"If there is a Chinese submarine in Scottish territorial waters, a British diplomat telephones Downing Street. Tomorrow, the reaction must be different. They must telephone Brussels," he said. "If you are Polish, you perceive enemies on the [EU's] eastern frontier. Tomorrow, you must see the menace to common interests. Your idea of danger must change."

Reality check

A diplomat from a western European country said the academy should also teach history if the post-2004 enlargement union is to function as a whole.

"EU diplomats have to have a better understanding of Eastern European history, for example, where Bulgaria and Romania are coming from [ideologically-speaking]. They do not have to agree with their views. But they should understand where they are coming from," he said.

The contact warned that EEAS staff used to the politesse of the Brussels bubble will need a reality check.

"Here in Brussels we live in a postmodern paradise, an 'I'm OK, you're OK' world where everybody is working toward compromises and deadlines. But it's a jungle out there. EU diplomats must have a better understanding of power, of adversarial negotiations," the source said.

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