UK attacks Ashton over 'ludicrous' budget proposal
The UK has publicly attacked EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton for seeking too much money and too much power for her European External Action Service (EEAS).
British junior minister David Lidington told press in Brussels on Monday (23 May) that Ashton's proposal to boost EEAS spending by almost €30 million to €490 million next year will not fly.
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"I think that they have got to get real as far as the budget is concerned. This 5.8 percent that they're asking for is somewhat ludicrous," he said.
He added that EU ambassadors stationed in Ashton's 136 foreign delegations should not try to speak for member states despite their new powers under the Lisbon Treaty. "There is pressure from parts of the EU machine to push competence. We push back. If it's overambitious, it actually can achieve a lot less," he noted.
Ashton brushed off the concerns, saying: "I don't know which particular aspect of competence creep he's worrying about."
She explained the extra money is needed to cover staff costs at a difficult time for the service, which continues to work out of eight separate buildings in the EU capital, and for new projects linked to the Arab spring.
"You have to make sure you pay people. The money I got last year doesn't give me that," she said. Noting that she opened a new office in Benghazi on Sunday and that she plans to increase EU presence in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, she added: "This involves putting people on the ground and that costs money."
French EU affairs minister Alain Juppe and Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger also grumbled about Ashton's performance. Juppe said the EEAS should react more quickly to world events, while Spindelegger said the diplomatic corps is "not functioning optimally."
Italian minister Franco Frattini was among the few who said the recent wave of Ashton-bashing is "unfair." Another EU diplomat told EUobserver that EEAS teething problems are "not her fault."
Syrian leader banned from EU
EU ministers on Monday also imposed a clutch of new travel bans and asset freeze measures on officials in Belarus, Iran, Libya and Syria. The measures legally entered into force on Tuesday morning when they were published in the union's Official Journal.
The journal described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the top name on the new register, as "authorising and supervising the crackdown on demonstrators" which has claimed up to 1,000 lives in the past two months. Vice-president Faruq al-Shar and three al-Assad family members, Mohamed Hamcho, Iyad Maklhouf and Ihab Makhlouf (a businessman said to "provide funding to the regime") were also added.
Reacting to the move Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem - not on the list - accused Europe of a 'neo-colonial' plot to undermine Syria for the sake of Israeli interests. "Today, the Europeans have added a black page to their record of colonialism in the region," he said. "They want Syria to bleed because Syria is a difficult equation in the face of their plans and Israel's expansionist project."
The new list of 13 Belarusian names contains mostly judges and prosecutors involved in sentencing opposition leaders, as well as a secondary school teacher, Natalia Merkul, who fired a government-critical colleague, and Valery Vakulchyk, an official responsible for "monitoring, filtering, bugging [and] controlling" opposition internet activity.
Belarus is not entirely isolated in the EU, however.
Italian news agencies report that President Silvio Berlusconi will be unable to attend a 31 May court hearing over allegations he had sex with an underage prostitute because he plans to visit Minsk.
The new Libya sanctions targeted Colonel Gaddafi's Afriqiyah Airways and an army colonel.
The Iran list included around 100 names of people and companies said to be part of a covert nuclear arms programme. It includes Iranian shipping firms in Cyprus, Germany, Malta, the UK and Hong Kong.
The article was updated at 10am Brussels time on 24 May to add new information from the Official Journal