30th May 2023

EU's 'French style' diplomatic service under fire

  • A meeting room at the French foreign ministry, the Quai d'Orsay, in Paris (Photo: france.diplomatie)

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's proposed structure for the bloc's new diplomatic service has come under fire for being too French in its style.

German liberal MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, part of a group of deputies actively debating the diplomatic service, told press on Friday (19 March) that the proposal is "a continuation of French policy by other means."

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The MEP, who hails from the same party as German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle and who says his concerns are largely shared by the German foreign ministry, identified two problems with the draft set-up.

He said it accords too much power to the secretary general of the service, on the model of the French foreign ministry, and isolates the military (ESDP) part of the service away from political governance.

"The secretary general will have an absolutely all-powerful post," Mr Graf Lambsdorff explained, noting that the position will be in charge of all budget and personnel issues as well as overseeing EU missions, be they in Kosovo, Congo or Bosnia.

The secretary general - the job is being tipped go to the French ambassador to the US, Pierre Vimont, or the secretary general of the French foreign ministry, Pierre Sellal - will also have unrivalled access to Ms Ashton and will control any communications sent up to her from the service.

The second issue is that the civilian planning, crisis management and EU military staff units will not be in the chain of command that includes EU diplomats in the Political and Security Committee, but will also answer directly to the secretary general.

"European defence and security policy is not integrated into normal political co-ordination. According to this proposal, the ESDP section is living a separate life," the MEP said.

If the diplomatic service is strongly tilted toward the military and headed by a powerful civil servant, it would raise questions about accountability, he added. "You lose out as a member state. And ultimately it is about German soldiers who will be sent on such missions," he said.

A recent organisational diagram for the crisis management unit (CMPD), seen as a core part of the diplomatic service, would appear to lend weight to this idea: military experts far outnumber civilian capabilities experts, while French officials dominate key positions, including the deputy director general and the head of integrated strategic planning.

The military weighting comes despite the fact that 21 of the 27 EU missions in conflict areas have in the past been civilian operations.

A French diplomat dismissed the accusations and pointed out that the proposals have come from the EU foreign relations chief herself, rather than from Paris. "That's coming from Mrs Ashton's office," the diplomat said. "What is a German-type service? What is a British service?"

Final phase

Although MEPs believe France, and to some extent Britain, have stolen a march on other member states, whether by accident or design, in the planning of the service, it is questionable how much can be changed at this late stage.

The European Commission on Thursday told EU diplomats that the corps should have 570 senior staff in Brussels and 281 in its foreign delegations. Adding together assistants and other junior workers, the total number of personnel would not exceed 2,000 people.

Ms Ashton is expected to put forward her formal proposal no later than 30 March, following a final debate by EU foreign ministers on Monday (22 March) and MEPs in the foreign affairs committee on Tuesday.

Another element still up in the air concerns whether Ms Ashton, who is often double- or triple-booked for meetings, should have special envoys to attend events in her place.

Some foreign ministers have been openly pushing the idea with an eye to taking up the post themselves. However, placing a foreign minister in the role in turn raises the question of whether Ms Ashton, or the relevant EU capital, would hold sway over her deputies.

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