Monday

5th Dec 2016

Details emerge on final set-up of EU diplomatic corps

  • Constructing the EU diplomatic service has been a lengthy process (Photo: EU Commission)

Both EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and MEPs have claimed victory in the final outcome of the battle of wills to establish the thousands-strong European diplomatic service.

To be on its feet by 1 December, the corps is supposed to give impetus to the EU's often incoherent foreign policy by bringing all its different aspects - external relations, military, civil and development - under one roof.

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The path to the agreement on Monday (21 June) was a typically Brussels-style battle, forcing a mindset change in the EU capital as member states and EU institutions for the first time sought to make a body etwining both intergovernmental and communitarian cultures.

It pitted Ms Ashton's still small team against a parliament determined to push the limits of the powers given to it under the Union's new rulebook.

The power politics saw Ms Ashton saying she is too busy to take calls from deputies while MEPs prevaricated over meeting points.

Both sides claimed victory in the end, however.

"The text which we have on the table today is not substantially very different to the text we set out with in our proposal at the end of March proposal," said an EU diplomat referring to the blueprint signed off my member states earlier this year.

"It is a text that is more precise on some issues; in some areas it is more clearly written," the diplomat summed up.

Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, one of parliament's three negotiators, said the institution had made a "huge difference" to the original proposal.

"Mostly we succeeded in changing the initial philosophy of ... the service," he said.

The balance

The final compromise looks to have fallen in between these two assessments. The service, with an ultimate size of around 8,000 people, will be a one-of-a-kind set-up, with its own, separate administrative budget. The budget will be subject to political control by the parliament.

MEPs have been given a strong opening in foreign policy issues. Ms Ashton has agreed that they can be consulted before EU missions abroad while they have also been given much stronger budgetary oversight over such actions.

In terms of staff for the service, only 40 percent will be allowed to be temporary diplomats from member states. The remainder must be permanent staff. The service will initially be commission-staff heavy but the balance is eventually expected to tip towards member states as there are only a finite number of commission staff eligible for the posts.

There will be no quotas for member states, something newer member states were very keen on. A diplomat explained that could raise the awkward possibility of having the head of the delegation in Russia post only open to new member states candidates.

Strategic country planning will take place in the service but the ultimate programming decisions for external assistance will rest with the commission. Geographical desks in the service will not be duplicated in the commission.

Internally, the service will have a secretary general and two deputy secretary generals as well as a director general for budget and administration - this last post being pushed in by the parliament.

Ms Ashton, who has a hectic travel schedule, will be deputised by either the relevant EU commissioner or the foreign minister of the country holding the EU presidency.

Timetable

Ms Ashton's team is still hoping to get the service established by 1 December - exactly a year after the EU's new rulebook, the Lisbon Treaty, came into force.

Assuming the parliament as a whole votes on the decision in July (they have yet to formally put it on the agenda) Ms Ashton will start advertising top posts at the end of next month. On a "best-case scenario" the jobs could then be filled in October.

The budget line for this year is €9.5 million euros. This foresees 1,100 diplomatic staff with about 100 new jobs created.

"These [new] posts are for reinforcing delegations overseas," said an EU diplomat.

Austrians ponder shift to far right

Austrian voters will on Sunday decide whether to stay in the EU centre, or lurch to the radical right, with Hofer slightly ahead in polls ahead of the presidential election.

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