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29th Mar 2020

Negotiators rush to get EU diplomatic service ready

  • Catherine Ashton - pushing to get the service agreed by all parties next week (Photo: Council of European Union)

Negotiators on the diplomatic service are in a last-minute rush to get the outline of the new corps agreed by early next week so it can be signed off by EU leaders at their summit on 17-18 June.

Talks on Tuesday (8 June) involving EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and MEPs on the last details of the service ended with one main issue on the table, according to EU sources.

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It concerns where to position the new service in the EU institutional set-up. Member states and Ms Ashton wanted to have a stand-alone service with its own independent budget.

MEPs, and particularly Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, one of the parliament's three negotiators on the diplomatic service, were against this solution arguing that it would not be subject to proper oversight. MEPs want it to be anchored to the European Commission, arguing also that setting up an independent body with its own separate budget would set a dangerous precedent.

"We have agreement in principle on political accountability," said a source. "What is still the outstanding issue is more budgetary."

According to the source, a compromise is now being sought that would be a half-way house between the two views. "We are looking at the moment at a compromise that looks something like the OLAF (EU anti-fraud office) situation, where you're given an independent budget but you go to the commission for the money."

This would not include money for programming however, which is "ring-fenced."

With the EU leaders summit at the end of next week seen as a natural deadline for the discussions, officials are hurrying to get the budgetary wrinkle ironed out.

Ms Ashton has offered to meet MEPs, along with Spanish foreign minister Miguel Moratinos and the EU institutional affairs commissioner, for what is hoped to be a last round of talks on Friday.

If all goes to plan, the leaders of the political groups in the parliament would give the green light on Monday morning, allowing foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg to sign it off before it goes to the EU leaders' table.

A spokesperson for Ms Ashton said Tuesday's meeting saw a "very constructive dialogue."

"The High Representative considers all parties to be very close to a political agreement. She is confident that this political agreement can be reached very soon, hopefully in the next few days."

An agreement next week would free Ms Ashton to start the process of appointing names to the high level jobs in the corps - over 50 vacancies for heads of delegation will be coming up in the next months.

Ms Ashton is hoping to have the service up-and-running by December. This is much later than the original spring date foreseen but talks were complicated by the need to get agreement by member states, the European Commission and Parliament.

"The difficulty we had was that the timing was based on an expectation that was never realistic - that you could do this in just no time," said an EU diplomat recently.

"We are being asked to create a completely new animal from scratch. The problem is that everybody, including our main partners around the world, were led to believe that the miracle would happen the day that the Lisbon Treaty entered into force (1 December 2009). That's why they are a bit impatient."

The service, due to have up to 8,000 personnel once it is fully established, is meant to give coherency and on-hand expertise to EU foreign policy.

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