Ashton finalising six more top appointments
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton is expected to fill at least six more top posts in the European External Action Service (EEAS) by the end of the month, following the nomination on Tuesday (16 November) of a Swede to chair the Political and Security Committee (PSC).
Olof Skoog, a 48-year-old Swedish diplomat who came to Brussels in 2007 after postings in Havana, Vienna, New York, Bogota and Stockholm, will chair the meetings and set the agenda of the PSC on behalf of Ms Ashton for the next five years.
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The PSC brings together 27 EU member state ambassadors at least once a week to thrash out compromises on EU foreign and security policy. It is also the bloc's first port of call in the event of an unforeseen international crisis and works closely with the the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen), the Union's intelligence-sharing bureau in Brussels.
"The main task of this committee is to build consensus among the 27 member states on foreign policy, while at the same time keeping a very high level of ambition. Each member state has a veto, so you can easily fall back on the lowest common denominator. But the real challenge is to produce clear, credible and pro-active results," Mr Skoog told EUobserver.
An EU diplomatic source added: "He had huge support - he's very highly rated and liked by his colleagues, so she accelerated this appointment."
The rest of the EEAS top cadre, the six so-called "managing directors" of the service's geographical and thematic departments, is expected to be announced in one package before 1 December, the official launch date of the new corps. In other outstanding appointments, Ms Ashton is to name her envoy to Geneva in the next few days. The nomination of the new head of SitCen and the EU ambassadors to Belarus, Bosnia, Brazil and Iraq might wait until early 2011.
The EEAS chief is currently conducting final interviews for the six managing director posts, with 27 screenings held in the past week alone.
Speculation favours Slovak foreign minister and former EU Special Representative to Bosnia Miroslav Lajcak to take charge of the section dealing with post-Soviet countries and the Western Balkans. French-origin European Commission official Hugues Mingarelli is tipped to run the Africa department. Swedish commission official Christian Leffler is favoured for the Middle East and Mediterranean rim branch. Spanish commission official Tomas Dupla del Moral is being talked about for the Asia or Americas portfolio.
The SitCen post is expected to go to Ilkka Salmi, the 42-year-old head of the Finnish security service, the Suojelupoliisin. "Finland has the advantage of being a neutral country, historically speaking. They are also neighbours with Russia, so they have experience on the hard side of intelligence and counter-intelligence," a contact in the EU institutions said.
Opinion is divided as to whether the nominations are being made primarily on merit or political considerations.
"They are saying that if you do well in the interviews ... you can get the job. That she's really looking for skills," an EU diplomat said. "The nominations were sewn up weeks ago," another diplomatic source said.
Messrs Dupla del Moral, Leffler and Mingarelli have applied wearing their commission hats rather than their national ones. Two-thirds of the EEAS cadre have to come from the EU institutions under a deal with the EU parliament.
The final EEAS line-up would cater for all the big EU countries except Italy. Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, the Netherlands and Romania would stand out as mid-sized countries which missed out.
Belgium and Portugal have Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, however. Denmark has its man as head of Nato. And a Dutch general recently took charge of the EU Military Staff.
The Belgian EU presidency and Ms Ashton had hoped that all 30-or-so EU Council working groups dealing with foreign policy, such as the PSC, would be handed over to permanent EEAS chairmen by the end of the year. But with the clock ticking, only a handful of the most active groups - on Africa, Asia, post-Soviet countries, the Western Balkans and the three groups which prepare PSC meetings - is likely to make the switch in time.