The EU's new diplomatic service


Introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, the European External Action Service (EEAS) is intended to give the European Union a greater role in foreign policy. It is now operational, though its scope and competences have been the subject of fierce debate among EU countries.

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The European Union has started to answer Henry Kissinger's famous question, 'Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?'

Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is also a vice-president of the European Commission in charge of external relations, was appointed in 2009 with the ambition of finally answering that call.

The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, created a new European diplomatic corps: the European External Action Service (EEAS). Headed by Ashton, it became operational on 1 December 2010 – exactly one year after its inception.

The service integrates the European Commission's existing foreign representations into a network of embassies representing the EU. It is staffed by officials from the Commission and European Council Secretariat – who represent 60% – and national civil servants.

From 1 July 2013, access to EEAS posts should be opened up to officials from other EU institutions, such as the European Parliament. At least one third of all staff will come from member states’ diplomatic services.

When fully operational, the EEAS will comprise around 5,500 officials in total, thus comparing in size to the foreign office of a large European country. The German Foreign Office, for example, employs 6,000 diplomats.

The creation of the service was far from plain sailing. Its composition, nature and scope have triggered turf wars between EU member states and brought nervous reactions from EU institutions.

EU ministers reached agreement on Ashton’s proposed EEAS in April 2010, but the Parliament made clear that it disliked the plans. The stand-off was resolved in June, when the Spanish EU Presidency reached a compromise on the organisation and operation of the service.

On 20 October 2010, MEPs approved the last three legislative texts required to launch the EEAS – on staffing, finances and the 2010 budget. This cleared the way for Ashton to appoint her 28-strong managerial team for the new service.

Ten of the 28 senior officials come from the current EU institutions, while six are from the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the bloc in 2004 and 2007 (see EurActiv 22/12/10).