Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

Ashton to take command of US-type situation room

You see it in the movies: fighting has broken out somewhere in the former Soviet Union, the US president walks into his situation room, monitors are showing satellite images, security advisors are shouting at each other, the president is given a briefing note and sends an agent to gather intelligence. Now, the EU's foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton, is to get a situation room of her own.

The EU version will not be like Hollywood.

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  • President Barack Obama meets with security advisors in the White House situation room. Ms Ashton is to get a similar set-up, but with vastly, vastly less power (Photo: The White House)

Ms Ashton will not have an army or a "European Intelligence Service" to send into action. The centre-left British politician, a former activist in the anti-nuclear CND group, is said to distrust military types and her first priority is the kitchen-sink construction of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

But she has already told EU leaders that she wants a "single crisis response centre" under her direct command and internal discussion on the Ashton situation room is at an advanced stage.

One scenario under consideration is a crisis directorate run by a director general and situated close to Ms Ashton's office in the EEAS headquarters, most likely in the so-called "Triangle" building facing the EU Council in the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels. It would have a staff of some 160 people and a modest budget of €10 to €20 million a year.

The situation room itself would have a conference table and banks of monitors showing breaking news and commercial satellite pictures of hotspots.

In the back-rooms, the crisis directorate would have a team of IT experts, scientists and tacticians scouring open source data in search of conflict threats, such as plans by UK private security firm Saracen International to build a pirate-fighting base in Somalia.

Ms Ashton's exclusive information would come from officials manning 24/7 hotlines to the EU's 136 foreign delegations and 14 civilian and military missions. Another unit would send people to crisis zones at short notice on fact-finding trips. A cell of secret service agents seconded from key EU states would pass Ms Ashton's queries to spy agencies such as the UK's MI6 or France's DGSE and file replies.

The European Commission's existing Crisis Room and the EU Council's Joint Situation Centre (SitCen) are to form the backbone of the crisis directorate. SitCen already sends people into the field. When war broke out in Georgia in 2008 it dispatched two "analysts" to "re-inforce the EUSR [the EU special envoy to the South Caucasus] with reporting," a contact familiar with SitCen operations told this website.

In an insight into the opaque bureau's work, the source added: "These are fairly normal people who have perhaps in their lives had some experience of being out in the field in a place less comfortable than Washington. They are not spooks by any means. We avoid anybody who even looks like one. They are people who can write reports. Who do not mind not staying in five star hotels. Who know how to take precautions when they go out at night."

The new set-up is to see Ms Ashton simply pick up the phone or walk down the hall and "task" people to go overseas or to query EU countries' secret services. Current bureaucracy means that 27 EU ambassadors in the Political and Security Committee first hold a debate before tasking SitCen.

The idea is to give the EU foreign relations chief a powerful asset when she asks EU foreign ministers to deploy an EU battlegroup or if she decides to send an EEAS diplomat, or even a prominent MEP, on a peace mission.

"Today, if you go through the normal channels to make a threat assessment in Kosovo, for example, by the time the [SitCen] officer gets to Pristina, it's all over," one PSC ambassador told this website.

"Imagine how effective the high representative could be if the new SitCen was to function like her shadow cabinet," a contact in the EU institutions said. "Member states are afraid to give away power. But this could be the new mega-commodity in Brussels."

Wider or deeper?

One question is whether the crisis response centre will handle man-made conflicts only, or natural disasters and pandemics also.

The wider portfolio could provoke turf wars between Ms Ashton and aid and development commissioners Kristalina Georgieva and Andris Piebalgs. It could also dilute EEAS resources, perpetuating the existing problems of overlooked and forgotten conflicts.

But the big question is: who will be Ms Ashton's right-hand man?

Former UK soldier and diplomat William Shapcott, who built and ran SitCen, walked away in June to a new position in the EU Council administration, creating the risk that his successor might take a minimalist approach to the job.

One candidate for the post is French diplomat Patrice Bergamini, who worked close to Ms Ashton's predecessor, Javier Solana, and helped draft the EU's first security strategy in 2003.

His appointment would give France a monopoly on the EEAS security side, however. French diplomat Christine Roger is to be the new PSC president. French official Claude-France Arnould is the new head of the EU Council's civilian-military crisis planning office. A French secret service agent runs SitCen's intelligence-sharing cell. And French diplomat Pierre Vimont is tipped to become EEAS secretary general, in charge of the body's internal security structures.

"It would be good to have a German appointment to make sure that Germany is engaged at the highest levels. Somebody with a diplomatic and a security or intelligence background," the source in the EU institutions said.

"Nationality can be overplayed. Intel is sensitive, so in that sense you do not want to play up the [director's] national connections," the contact familiar with SitCen's work said.

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