Ashton makes concessions to parliament on diplomatic service
By Honor Mahony
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has offered a series of concessions to MEPs in a bid to get them to sign up to the details of the new diplomatic service, but some parliamentary demands remain unanswered.
In a speech before the foreign affairs committee on Tuesday (24 March), Ms Ashton promised the house full budgetary oversight over the service, including signing off on its yearly budget, a point which occupies first place on the parliament's wishlist.
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"There is no question of the accountability of the service in financial terms to the European Parliament," she said.
The British peer, who has to build a service which satisfies the demands of member states, the European Commission and the parliament, also appeared to suggest that MEPs will get their wish for budgetary oversight on separate EU missions.
At the moment, the parliament agrees a lump sum for EU foreign policy expenditure but has no idea how it is divided up.
"It's incredible. There is no budget line for our mission in Somalia. We don't know how much has been spent in Somalia on staff, on building, etc. It's very opaque," said German Green MEP Franziska Brantner before the parliamentary hearing.
However, Ms Ashton said: "There is no longer a 'gentlemen's agreement' to limit parliamentary insight and control," referring to a decades-old pact where the parliament and council have a 'don't look' policy when it comes to each other's internal spending practices.
Playing to MEPs' desire to be treated as VIPs, especially when travelling abroad, the high representative also promised that "all delegations in the EEAS (European External Action Service) will be instructed to support official visits by members of the EP."
The EU's 136 foreign delegations will also have a "point of contact" for the parliament, while the heads of delegations will be at parliament's "disposal" when the assembly is examining issues relating to the country in question.
MEPs will also be entitled to an "informal exchange of views" with those appointed to be heads of delegations before they take up their job. Joao Vale de Almeida, whose nomination to the Washington embassy sparked controversy for leaving member states out of the loop, will meet MEPs in the "near future," Ms Ashton promised.
The two-hour-long hearing with MEPs was a largely good-natured affair, with deputies proving to be a lesser adversary than the European Commission when it comes to what should be contained in the diplomatic service.
Deputies back including humanitarian aid, development policy and neighbourhood policy in the service, making it as "broad" as possible. The commission has been fighting to keep to control over as many policy areas as it can.
Some of the issues MEPs raised remained unanswered, however.
Parliamentarians have spoken out against an all-powerful secretary general of the service, as recently suggested by Ms Ashton. German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok referred to a "spider" sitting at the top of a web, with deputies believing that the person will exercise too much control without any political accountability.
MEPs are also concerned about the level of representation for Ms Ashton's deputies. They reject the idea of her being deputised by a civil servant, believing that her deputies must be political appointees. They particularly do not want a civil servant standing in for Ms Ashton when it comes to relations with the parliament.
They also want to see more political accountability for the service's military wing.
These issues remained open on Tuesday, with the top diplomat suggesting they will have to be discussed by representatives from the commission, the council and parliament round a table in future.
Ms Ashton is planning to present a formal proposal for the structure by the end of next week. MEPs, who have a de facto veto, given their right of co-decision on staff and budgetary issues, believe it will be at least June before the technical questions allowing the establishment of the service are resolved. Some of have suggested the discussions may last until the early autumn.