22nd Oct 2016

EU foreign ministers approve diplomatic service

EU foreign ministers on Monday (26 July) gave the nod to the overall structure of the Union's new diplomatic service, paving the way for chief of diplomacy Catherine Ashton to begin making appointments to the service that will employ thousands.

"It is historic to be able to witness the birth, at least at the decision level, of a European diplomacy," Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere, whose country holds the EU rotating presidency, said following the meeting.

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  • The EU is hoping to project a more coherent and longterm foreign policy with the help of its diplomatic service (Photo: wikipedia)

Due to be on its feet by 1 December, the service will see Ms Ashton backed up by a secretary general - likely to be France's ambassador to the US Pierre Vimont - as well as two deputy secretaries general.

Monday's decision puts to rest a lengthy period of infighting between the EU institutions on the exact balance of power within the diplomatic service but opens the door to a power struggle between member states about who should land which posts within the service.

Ms Ashton is soon expected to announce a series of names for the heads of EU embassies abroad - including to prestigious countries such as China and Brazil. But appointments to key internal posts, such as the secretary general job, can only be made once the European Parliament has agreed new staffing rules, a move expected towards the end of September.

Writing in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, Ms Ashton said the new European External Action Service, despite its "ungainly" name, has a "bold and simple purpose: to give the EU a stronger voice around the world, and greater impact on the ground."

With the fight to have the service established largely over, the focus is now likely set on the extent to which member states, several of whom jealously guard their foreign policy prerogatives, will allow a coherent foreign policy to thrive.

Big countries have been keen to stress the service will not impinge on their foreign policy sovereignty, a point illustrated by the extent to which they are prepared to consider closing their own embassies in certain countries and use the EU embassy.

According to France's Europe minister, Pierre Lellouche, some countries may consider saving money through using EU embassy facilities but this should not be the case for France.

"I am the secretary of state, and I do not speak for France [but] I think it is desirable that France continues to maintain a global network. It is one of the few countries to do so, " he said, according to Le Monde.

Ms Ashton alluded to the difficulties in the article: "Our aim is to do foreign policy in a modern way, differently and better. Not to compete with or duplicate what our member states are doing, but to add value and play to our strength of acting as a union."

Drawing staff from the European Commission, the member states' council secretariat in Brussels and national diplomats, the service is expected to have around 6,000 personnel once it is fully up and running, expected to take another two or three years.

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