26th Oct 2016

Ashton hires Polish agent to beef up security

  • The EU Commission's Berlaymont building in Brussels: Ms Ashton currently works out of the commission headquarters, but the new EEAS building will need its own security shield (Photo: EUobserver)

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has hired a Polish secret service officer to be the main architect of internal security in the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The officer, whose name is being kept under wraps, was parachuted into Brussels from Warsaw to begin work on 1 June and is expected to stay in the EU capital until the end of the year.

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His job is to chair a new "working group" that will design security protocols for the diplomatic corps, concentrating on physical security of EEAS buildings in Brussels and communications systems with the EU's 136 foreign delegations.

The group, which meets once a week, also includes "15 or so" delegates from the commission, the EU Council, the Belgian EU presidency, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.

"They are mostly diplomats, but not all of them," a contact in the EU institutions said. "They come from those member states who are the most interested in security. In setting this up, you need expertise and experience."

The EEAS, which is expected to start work in October or November, will handle classified documents.

The Council and commission already have detailed security protocols, but they are not water-tight. EU diplomats are fond of telling the anecdote how a Russian diplomat was once escorted from a meeting of the Political and Security Committee in the Council after wandering in "by mistake."

The Ashton group chairmanship is a mini-coup for Warsaw.

Some Polish politicians, such as centre-right MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, have in the past complained that "new" member states are not playing an important enough role in the fledgling EEAS. But the Polish administration has kept quiet about its EEAS security role because it wants to be a "reliable partner" for its EU peers.

Post-Communist and post-Soviet EU countries see themselves as experts on security matters after their experience in the Cold War.

China and Russia are both security threats in Brussels. But the exposure this week of 11 alleged Russian spies in the US, and the earlier case of Herman Simm, an Estonian official who passed EU and Nato papers to Moscow, have highlighted Russia's post-Cold-War spy effort.

Former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar, who helped organise a clean-out of KGB elements in Estonia's security structures in his two periods in office in the 1990s, said the US arrests and the Simm case are wake-up calls for Europe.

"We must learn that this is a reality. This is what Russia is for," he told EUobserver in an interview.

"You don't need big [counter-intelligence] services. Effective services can be quite small. But they must be clean themselves," he added, on the potential value of experts from ex-Iron-Curtain countries.

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