Ashton puts French ‘spider’ at centre of EEAS web

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Despite opposition from the European Parliament, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton unveiled on 25 March a proposal that puts a French-style secretary-general and two deputies at the centre of the EU's future diplomatic service.

Ashton's 12-page proposal for establishing the European External Action Service (EEAS) ignored the Parliament, which had rejected the 'French-style' set up in which a secretary-general would hold enormous power (EURACTIV 24/03/10).

If approved, the secretary-general will run the European External Action Service web "like a spider," MEPs warned.

"The EEAS shall be managed by a secretary-general who will operate under the authority of the High Representative [Catherine Ashton]," reads the proposal. "The secretary-general shall take all measures necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of the EEAS, including its administrative and budgetary management," it goes on.

As reported earlier by EURACTIV, Ashton's proposal appeared vague and did not contain an organisational chart.

Just a couple of hours after Ashton had unveiled her blueprint, a cross-party group of MEPs issued a statement saying the Parliament found the proposal unacceptable.

"The proposed structure with an omnipotent secretary-general and deputy secretary-generals does not provide the politically legitimised deputies that the High Rep needs in order to do her job properly," reads the statement, co-signed by Elmar Brok (EPP) and Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE), Hannes Swoboda (S&D) and Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Greens/EFA). 

"What is needed are political deputies that can engage on her behalf with both Parliament and partners in third countries," the leading MEPs state.

Lawmakers slammed Ashton's proposal for paying little attention to Parliament in terms of political accountability. They also criticised what they saw as the "artificial separation of part of the development competences between EEAS services and Commission services," calling it a "recipe for incoherence".

Indeed, Ashton's blueprint envisages that the EU development commissioner, who is in charge of a multi-billion budget, and his colleague responsible for neighbourhood policy, will work in parallel.

"With regard to the European Development Fund and the Development Cooperation Instrument, any proposals […] shall be prepared by the relevant services in the EEAS and in the Commission under the direct supervision and guidance of the commissioner responsible for development policy and then jointly submitted with the High Representative for decision by the Commission," Ashton's proposal reads.

A similar paragraph was added regarding neigbourhood policy.

In recent statements, MEPs had strongly cautioned against the Commission services and the EEAS working in parallel instead of merging.

MEPs also expressed regret that despite much contact in recent weeks, the High Representative had chosen "not to take Parliament's views sufficiently into account".

"The proposal needs decisive changes, otherwise the European Parliament will not be able to carry forward the required modifications of the Staff and Financial Regulation," MEPs warn, threatening to reject the proposed finance and staffing aspects of the plan, which need the Parliament's clearance.

In the meantime, EURACTIV has obtained the latest blueprint put forward by MEPs for establishing the EEAS, accompanied by an organigram.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek told EU leaders on 25 March that he "regrets" the proposal tabled by Ashton just hours before, which in his words does not take on board certain points which are crucial for Parliament.

"From its birth, this new structure will be the size of an entire European institution! Therefore it needs to be supervised properly," Buzek stated.

"In terms of staff, I strongly hope that a genuine geographical balance will be maintained," Buzek further stated.

Asked by EURACTIV if by taking the side of East European countries insisting on a "geographical balance," he was setting a precedent for the next president to fight for the interests of Western EU members instead, Buzek insisted that a geographical balance is in the interests of all EU countries, and includes the South and the Scandinavian peninsula.

Buzek also insisted that the EU's future special representatives and ambassadors to key countries, such as Washington, Moscow and Beijing, would pass parliamentary hearings before taking their posts. Such a procedure is not envisaged by the Lisbon Treaty and has been rejected by Ashton's services.

Commenting on the decision proposed today the High Representative Catherine Ashton on the European External Action Service, UK Europe Minister Chris Bryant said "I welcome this proposal". 

"It takes us a step closer towards realising the vision we share with Cathy Ashton to establish an External Action Service that gives the EU a strong voice on foreign affairs. It is in Britain's interests on issues as diverse as Iran, China, Russia and the Middle East for Europe to speak with a clear, effective, united and disciplined voice. Europe should add value, not replicate what individual countries can and should do," Bryant said. 

"Ashton's desire to set the direction of how EU development money is spent is potentially bad news," said Elise Ford, head of Oxfam International's EU office. "Her proposal on the EU's first ever diplomatic service risks making poverty objectives hostage to foreign policy goals. It is now up to EU member states and the European Parliament to rectify Ashton's misconception about what effective development policy is," she said.

"Poor countries need EC Development Commissioner Piebalgs to make budgetary decisions on the basis of where needs and potential for impact are greatest, rather than being driven by the political and strategic objectives of the Union," she added.

The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, equips the European Union with a 'European External Action Service' (EEAS): a diplomatic corps with the objective of developing a genuinely European foreign policy.

Yet the task of defining the nature, competences and outlook of the new institution might be more contentious than previously thought by the treaty's authors.

The December 2009 European summit asked Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to present a proposal on the organisation and functioning of the EEAS, with a view to its adoption by the end of April 2010.

In the meantime, Elmar Brok, a leading German MEP from the European People's Party (EPP) and Liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt, as European Parliament co-rapporteurs on EEAS, tabled a 'non-paper' outlining the EU assembly's views regarding the Union's future diplomatic service (EURACTIV 24/03/10).

The document was accompanied by an organisational chart which is strikingly different from the one which had already emerged from Ashton's services.

  • End April: Deadline set by EU leaders for adopting Ashton's proposal.

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