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21st Jul 2019

Ashton keen to axe Congo conflict envoy

  • Congo Mine. Mineral wealth, elections, guerrilla fighters and mass rape make for an explosive combination (Photo: ENOUGH project)

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton is keen to cut the post of EU Special Representative (EUSR) to the Great Lakes in Africa at a turbulent time in the region.

According to an informal paper put forward by her office last month and seen by EUobserver, the Great Lakes position, currently filled by Dutch diplomat Roeland van de Geer, is to be terminated and its work carried out by Ashton's own official, former British diplomat Nicholas Westcott, instead.

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The move is part of a wider shake-up of the EUSR group begun by Ashton one year ago.

The changes have already seen the deletion of EUSRs for Macedonia and Moldova. Ashton originally wanted to cut the Middle East and the South Caucasus posts as well, but smaller member states, including some Nordic countries, opposed the move.

Under the April blueprint the Middle East envoy is to get a new mandate. EU sources say this will involve a stronger focus on Arab-Israeli peace talks and giving "political guidance" to Ashton's diplomats in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The EUSR office for the Georgia-Russia conflict is to be merged with the South Caucasus post covering Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The Georgia-Russia office is currently filled by French diplomat Pierre Morel, who is also the EUSR for Central Asia, while the old South Caucasus post is empty. Morel is set to keep the Central Asia job only, with a new South Caucasus envoy to be recruited by 1 September.

Meanwhile, a new EUSR is to be created to help implement the EU's Horn of Africa strategy on pirates in Somalia. The other EUSRs - to Afghanistan, the African Union, Bosnia, Kosovo and Sudan - are to stay in place.

The South Caucasus change would be a mini-defeat for France.

An EU diplomat said Morel got the Georgia job because France wanted to stay in charge of EU diplomacy on the conflict after President Nicolas Sarkozy's interventions in Moscow and Tbilisi in 2008: "This mandate should never have been created. It only exists because France wanted a Frenchman there handling the Sarkozy legacy."

But the Great Lakes change is causing the most controversy.

One EU diplomat said the EUSR head-chopping is based more on turf-wars in Brussels than on foreign policy: "This is about Ashton trying to establish her authority. The EUSRs were set up by Solana [Ashton's predecessor] and they report primarily to the member states, not to her. They are not 'her men'."

NGO contacts report that Belgium and Germany want to keep the Great Lakes post for one more year until Westcott gets up to speed.

The proposed change comes at a turbulent time in the region. Elections are due in the Democratic Republic of Congo in November. There is growing competition for rare-earth minerals, a resurgence in attacks by Rwanda rebel group the FDLR and a shocking level of sexual violence against women.

"Terminating the mandate of the EUSR for the Great Lakes now sends a message of EU disengagement at a critical moment," Kris Berwouts, the director of the Brussels-based NGO group EurAC, said in a written statement for EUobserver.

"Without an EUSR for the Great Lakes the regional dimension of conflicts and poverty will be ignored by the EU and the national approaches will be incomplete," Thierry Vircoulon, central Africa director for the International Crisis Group, a prominent think-tank, said.

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