29th Sep 2023

Ashton nominations, Israel to come up at EU ministers' meeting

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday and Saturday (10 and 11 September) are likely to discuss the carve up of senior posts in the EU's diplomatic corps and the Middle East peace process, on top of the main agenda.

The informal or so-called Gymnich event, which is to take place in the Belgian foreign ministry's Egmont Palace building, has on its primary agenda the prospect of launching a strategic partnership with China and the idea of reducing EU trade tariffs for Pakistani goods to help the country following disastrous floods.

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  • Ms Ashton visited a village school on the first day of her three-day China trip last week (Photo:

But with EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton expected to name her first tranche of senior personnel in the European External Action Service in the coming days, EU diplomats foresee an outbreak of bilateral meetings between Ms Ashton and member states as capitals lobby for their candidates.

A source told EUobserver that the Belgian foreign minister, in the margins of the event, is keen to discuss a recent study by the Polish Institute for Foreign Relations about the unequal distribution of senior jobs in the current EU foreign relations set-up. The study shows that Belgian, Dutch, Italian, French and German men make up a vastly disproportionate number of the 115 existing EU heads of delegation abroad.

The Belgian foreign ministry forcefully denied the EUobserver report about the Polish study. "None of this is true," a Belgian diplomat said.

Meanwhile, German diplomat Markus Ederer is a leading candidate for the prestigious post of head of delegation to China. The 53-year-old lawyer has for five years worked as the head of policy planning in the German foreign ministry. His CV also includes three previous years in Brussels and three years as head of political and economic assessment in the German secret service, the BND.

Ms Ashton's envoys are supposed to be loyal to Brussels. But the placement could be interesting for Berlin - sales of BMW cars in China grew by 37 percent last year.

The nomination is not a done deal. Austria's ambassador to the EU, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, and Ireland's ambassador to China, Declan Kelleher, are said to be in the running. Mr Ederer himself is also being spoken of as an "excellent" candidate to lead the EU's intelligence-sharing bureau, the Joint Situation Centre.

The recent relaunch in Washington of Middle East peace talks is predicted to come up in the "any other business" slot of the Gymnich.

The German, French and Spanish foreign ministers are exploring the idea of a joint trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. The initiative comes after French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner criticised Ms Ashton for going to Beijing instead of the Washington talks last week.

"I am not sure there will be much bickering [at the Gymnich] about who was where or why," an EU diplomatic source said.

"The [trilateral] trip is still more or less in limbo, some people are working on it. There are some difficult logistical and security issues to be taken care of. And of course, we will have to see how the Washington process develops."

The contact added that the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, is also likely to be discussed.

"It has become such a big media issue that ministers will want to raise the issue of human rights in Iran, where that poor lady is to be stoned."

Correction: the original story was amended at 12.30 Brussels time on 10 September. The correction adds a denial by the Belgian foreign ministry that it intends to discuss a Polish study on EU personnel at the event.

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