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19th Jan 2020

EU takes 'historic' step on new diplomatic service

  • Ashton (c): endured three months of personal attacks, now risks taking more flak over EEAS appointments (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton will turn her attention to choosing the top officials and the main building for the European External Action Service (EEAS) after the EU Parliament approved the legal blueprint for the new body.

MEPs in a landslide result in Strasbourg on Thursday (8 July) backed the final EEAS set-up by 549 votes against 78 with 17 abstentions.

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Some legal niceties remain to be cleared in July and September. But the parliament decision paves the way for the service to begin work on 1 December, 10 years after it was first mooted by EU leaders, in what Ms Ashton called "a historic step in the development of the union" in a debate in parliament on Wednesday.

The EEAS today boils down to Ms Ashton and a team of 30-or-so officials in one corridor on the 12th floor of the European Commission building in the EU capital, struggling to work with experts in the commission's Charlemagne building next door, the EU Council building across the road and dozens of other bureaus.

From 1 December, she will take command of some 1,500 officials housed under one roof in the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels, as well as 800 EU diplomats in the EEAS' 136 foreign embassies.

Ms Ashton herself will concentrate on shuttle diplomacy and conflict resolution, supported on one side by seven-or-so EU Special Representatives and on the other by an in-house "crisis response centre" of up to 160 security analysts.

A powerful secretary general or "CEO" will run the day-to-day EEAS administration. Two deputy secretary generals, a "COO" in charge of budgets and personnel, and five or six senior directors general will form the rest of the management.

The EEAS will focus on boosting the EU's role and image as a world power. Apart from conflict resolution, it will tackle broader issues such as development aid, natural disasters, pandemics, energy security and migration.

Ms Ashton in a bold promise to parliament on Wednesday said: "I will give a high priority to the promotion of human rights and good governance around the world, to make sure that this is a silver thread that runs through everything we do."

In a delicate balance of power between the EU institutions, member states will still take EU foreign policy decisions by unanimity in the EU Council, but Ms Ashton will control overseas crisis missions, even if they are paid for out of national budgets.

The commission will retain command of its €6 billion a year development aid budget. The aid, development, energy and enlargement commissioners will take the lead in decision-making in their portfolios.

MEPs will have the right to say Yes or No to the EEAS annual budget, to informally vet appointments for prominent foreign embassies and to have access to some EEAS classified documents.

In a sign of tension, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos defended member states' prerogatives in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Mr Fillon reportedly said it is a "red line" for Paris that member states will take foreign policy decisions and Ms Ashton will simply "implement" them. Mr Moratinos said that in some cases, such as human rights in Cuba, bilateral diplomacy is more effective than EU-level action.

For his part, the leader of the Liberal group in the parliament, Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, on Wednesday attacked the "19th century" mentality of "nation states." "What century are we living in? Terrorism, does that stop at borders? Climate change? Migration?" he said.

Sensitive task

Ms Ashton has already begun in earnest the sensitive task of choosing the 15-or-so top EEAS appointments.

"What is absolutely clear to me is that we are going to make appointments on merit. I am already beginning to hold the interviews, that is already happening, and they are coming from different parts of the union," she told MEPs on Wednesday. Women will have a prominent place in the EEAS leadership, she added.

The relatively speedy launch of the service is a triumph for Ms Ashton, who endured three months of personal criticism after taking the job last year. But the appointments round could see Brussels once again get nasty.

A rumour in EU diplomatic circles that Ms Ashton at an internal meeting on 25 June chose French diplomat Pierre Vimont, German EU official Helga Schmid and Polish politician Mikolaj Dowgielewicz for the top three EEAS posts has put smaller member states on the defensive.

Sources in Ms Ashton's circle declined to confirm or deny that the meeting took place.

A diplomat from one mid-sized EU country said: "I understand why Poland needs to be there [for the sake of geographic balance]. But if this is true, it gives the message that the EEAS is a stitch-up between the Brits, the French and the Germans."

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