MEPs issue wake up call on EU diplomatic service
By Honor Mahony
The European Parliament is starting to question the make-up of the planned EU diplomatic service, believing it risks changing the nature of the Union to favour larger member states.
The service is meant to give some clout to the post of foreign minister - created by the EU's new Lisbon treaty - and due in place at the beginning of next year.
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But MEPs fear that the service could become a body that is essentially run by large member states, and where the European Commission and smaller countries are sidelined.
"To what extent is the commission aware that this is about its own destiny?" asked German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok during a committee debate on the matter last week.
Andrew Duff, a British liberal MEP, accused the commission of "not showing its normal cohesion" when it comes to the EU diplomatic corps.
There is a "degree of uncertainty on quite how the commission should play this one," he noted.
The new EU Reform Treaty states that the corps should work in "cooperation" with national diplomatic services and that it will consist of EU officials working on external relations issues from the commission and the council (member states body) as well as experts from the member states.
But it leaves all the organisational - but highly political - detail about how it should be funded, where it should sit and the ratio of the different officials to be decided by member states.
Finnish centre-right MEP Alexander Stubb suggested the tussle over the exact set up of the body could see a "potential institutional war that could turn out very sour."
Work on the service is expected to really get underway under the French EU presidency in the second half of this year. By then proposals on its make up from the commission, member states and council should all be in.
MEPs only have the right to be consulted on the matter, but they want to ensure that certain key questions are resolved to their liking.
The diplomats should be paid from the EU's community budget, they say, and the commission's 120 delegations abroad should be turned into EU embassies - this would keep the commission firmly in the power loop.
It would also give MEPs some of the oversight they want as they have the final say over the EU budget.
In addition, the corps should not be too heavily staffed with member state officials and it should not be housed in the same building as the member states' power den - the council.
All of these points are expected to be in a report by Mr Brok in the coming weeks.
Other open questions include whether the quotas for national experts from member states should differ according to the country's size, whether the members of the corps should have diplomatic immunity and whether it will also deal with areas traditionally on the commission's power patch - such as trade and development issues.
While one MEP suggested it could be the "greatest opportunity to strengthen our foreign policy," Belgian centre-right MEP Jean-Luc Dehaene warned "there are going to be a lot of conflicts" around its setting up.
The core of the problem is that some member states - particularly the UK - fear losing foreign policy sovereignty if the foreign minister and his or her diplomatic corps is not firmly anchored to national capitals.
Both the new EU foreign minister as well as the diplomatic service are to be in place by January 2009, when the new treaty is supposed to come into force.