Thursday

22nd Oct 2020

Ashton picks Finn to be EU 'spymaster'

  • Salmi's counterpart in the PSC, Olof Skoog, is a Swede, giving a Nordic flavour to EU security structures (Photo: European Commission)

Ilkka Salmi, the 42-year-old head of the Finnish security service the Suojelupoliisin, has been appointed as the new director of the EU's intelligence-sharing bureau, the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen).

The move all-but-completes EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton's top line-up in the European External Action Service (EEAS).

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Mr Salmi is said to have been picked for the €15,000-a-month post because of his "fantastic" personal qualities. But EU political correctness was a second factor - the Nordic countries had so far missed out on first-tier appointments in Ms Ashton's corps.

Some contacts in the EU institutions would have favoured an older candidate from a larger member state which has an intelligence relationship with China, Russia and the US or a proven expert on the Middle East and Islamist terror threats in Europe.

The relatively junior stature of Mr Salmi has also raised concern that Ms Ashton does not plan to give SitCen a big role in her crisis management structures or to pump money into extra capabilities.

Other sources point out that Finland's historical and geographical profile is a good fit for the post: Finland is traditionally a neutral country which has long experience of counter-intelligence operations against its neighbour, Russia.

Mr Salmi has some experience of Brussels; he studied for a master's degree in international law at the Vrije Universiteit in the EU capital in 1993, worked as an assistant in the European Parliament in 1995 and in Finland's EU mission in 1998. He also reached the rank of lieutenant in the Finnish military and was a special advisor to former Finnish PM Paavo Lipponen.

In an unusual twist for a man of his profile, he appears in some short clips on YouTube.

SitCen's primary role is to write flash reports and medium-term security analyses for Ms Ashton's cabinet and the member states' Political and Security Committee (PSC) based on classified information sent to its Brussels office from around 20 EU countries and on open source information harvested by a team of 15 analysts, soon to be expanded to 21.

Mr Salmi's counterpart in the PSC, PSC president Olof Skoog, is a Swede, giving a Nordic flavour to the EEAS' security leadership. Ms Ashton has also decided to keep French diplomat Patrice Bergamini by her side as a special advisor on intelligence and security matters, however.

Few documents are publicly available on the nature of SitCen's work. But one EU paper dating back to the bureau's inception in 2001, entitled "Suggestions for procedures for coherent, comprehensive EU crisis management," is still relevant as an insight into its work.

"In time of routine the SitCen, operating on a permanent basis, will continuously monitor international developments, provide early warning, receive and evaluate information and disseminate information and evaluations to concerned users [in the EU institutions]," it says.

"In time of crisis the centre will continue the above-mentioned functions and step up the collection, processing and reporting of situation information. In particular, the SitCen will produce comprehensive and timely situation reports and assessments."

In time of crisis "Provision of classified information by the member states is paramount," it adds.

The SitCen appointment comes after Ms Ashton last week failed to get consensus from the 26 EU countries represented in the European Defence Agency (EDA) to appoint her pick for the head of the institution: Claude-France Arnoult.

According to Bruxelles 2, a well-informed blog run by a French journalist, the problem came down to poor consultation with EU capitals rather than Ms Arnoult's merit.

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