28th May 2022

Member states and EU commission clash over diplomatic service

  • The turf war between the EU institutions is heating up (Photo: Flickr/Kate Gardiner)

The European Commission and EU member states are in the middle of a nasty scrap over who is to have the most influence on Europe's new diplomatic corps.

Talks between the EU executive and national diplomats over the organisation of the External Action Service (EAS) took a combative turn last week after the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, circulated in Brussels a series of "vision papers" - seen by EUobserver - on the new institution.

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One source close to the discussions described them as "very frosty, pretty tense," with the commission representatives saying the Ashton documents seemed to offer a leading role for the Council of Ministers, representing the member states.

The European Council asked Ms Ashton to decide how she would be setting up the service by April. Discussions are ongoing with the commission and the council to make sure that everyone is on board before the decision is finally taken in April.

But it is understood that feelings are now running so high that the commission is considering withdrawing public support for the proposals.

The commission feels that member states are encroaching on parts of policy territory thought of as its own, while member states think the commission, if not exactly making a power grab, is overstepping the mark.

One major point of contention concerns control over development policy. Member states feel that development policy strategy should be set by themselves and the commission should have the role of implementing decisions.

Ms Ashton's papers outline three possible options for development funds: In the first scenario, the EAS would lead on all stages of development programming, from deciding on the levels of funding to the overall strategy and decisions on national and regional activities.

In the second scenario, the commission could take the lead in national and regional activities - essentially the implementation of an agreed strategy.

In the third, responsibility would be split equally between the EAS and the commission, with the former responsible for Latin America and the latter for Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific countries.

The commission is also unhappy with the idea that the EAS should have thematic units or "desks" which cut across geographic regions on topics such as migration or climate change. Climate change in particular is seen as a commission prerogative.

Appointment powers contentious

Another bone of contention is the appointment of the heads of EU embassies.

Here, the member states feel that the proposal leans too much towards the commission. Neither of the two options in Ms Ashton's vision papers - that appointment powers be exercised by her in agreement with the commission, or that the commission takes the lead and she gives the final approval - "go far enough for the member states in terms of what we would like to see for heads of delegation appointments," said one European diplomat speaking to EUobserver.

The source robustly supported the high representative's proposals overall, however, saying Ms Ashton is right to back a stronger role for the member states: "Ashton's overall vision is right. It's ambitious, integrated and should enable the EU to make more a greater and more influential impact on foreign affairs across the globe."

"She's held off attempts from within the commission to limit the role of the EAS and the member states now need to support her on these issues so that we get an EAS which is an effective part of the EU machine."

A diplomat from another member state said: "We will do everything we can to support Ashton on this. It is vital that she have a clear strong mandate to get the EAS set up."

The source said the commission was unnecessarily picking a fight: "Ashton's already part of the commission as well, so really they should not have any fears about this."

A commission official meanwhile suggested that while talks are "tough", the discussions "are very much a work in progress and Ms Ashton is in listening mode at the moment, aiming to shape a consensus that meets all concerns."

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