Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Full speed ahead on EU diplomacy after Strasbourg vote

The European Parliament on Wednesday (20 October) adopted by a crushing majority new budgetary and staff regulations for the European External Action Service (EEAS), clearing the last legal hurdle for the launch of the new institution.

"It's a historic vote. We're all one happy family now," an official in the entourage of EEAS chief Catherine Ashton told EUobserver.

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  • EP chief Jerzy Buzek greets Ms Ashton in Strasbourg. 'We're all one happy family now' an EU official said (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

EU foreign ministers are set to approve the parliament decision when they meet in Brussels on Monday. Ms Ashton is then expected to name people for the three or four top posts in her service on Tuesday or Wednesday. Another 100 or so senior posts remain to be filled by the end of the year.

The British baroness now has until 1 December - the official launch date - to find a new home for the EEAS in the EU capital. EU Council secretary general Pierre de Boissieu is not keen to shift his translators out of the Lex building in the EU quarter in Brussels to make room, leaving the so-clled Axa or Triangle building a few hundred yards up the road still in play.

The current cost of housing the EU's foreign relations staff in the European Commission and EU Council amounts to €25 million a year, while the Axa option would cost €9 million a year, EUobserver understands.

Ms Ashton is also close to a compromise with the parliament's foreign affairs committee on hearings for new EEAS ambassadors. The diplomats are likely to face parliament questions in early December, after receiving full accreditation from host countries.

Ms Ashton wants the hearings to be held mostly behind closed doors. Following the vote on Wednesday, the foreign affairs MEPs have little leverage to use against her.

The budget-and-staff package envisages detailed parliamentary oversight on EEAS hiring and firing of diplomats in foreign missions but not on EU member states' spending of the €3-billion-a-year European Development Fund or on military missions.

It stipulates an "appropriate and meaningful presence of nationals from all the member states" but not quota-type targets for nationals from new EU countries, as called for by Polish centre-right MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.

Ideas on what the EEAS should actually do in the coming years are still evolving.

German Green MEP Franziska Brantner on Wednesday urged Ms Ashton to specialise in conflict prevention. "What Europe needs are crisis management and mediation experts rather than an unwieldy service of high-salaried diplomats," she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Europe's neighbours are likely to feel relief that the mild disarray in EU foreign policy caused by the EEAS launch process is coming to an end.

Recalling the Mavi Marmara crisis in May - when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens bound for Gaza - the Turkish ambassador to the EU, Selim Kuneralp, told this website of Anakara's difficulties in communicating with the EU.

"Normally, in a foreign ministry you have people at various levels for third countries to talk to. In the EU at this stage there are basically three people, all of them very high-level - Ms Ashton herself, Robert Cooper and Helga Schmid," he said, referring to Ms Ashton's two top advisors.

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