‘Difficult birth’ awaits EU diplomatic service

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The birth of the European External Action Service, one of the most anticipated innovations of the Lisbon Treaty, will be a difficult one, admitted a top European Commission official yesterday (4 March).

João Vale de Almeida, director-general at the European Commission’s external relations department and future EU ambassador to Washington, spoke of the double challenge of setting up the European External Action Service (EEAS) fast and "right". He was speaking at a conference organised by 14 European think-tanks, who presented a "contribution to the Spanish, Belgian and Hungarian trio presidency".

Vale de Almeida is a key player in the 13-member committee led by Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs chief, in charge of producing a proposal for setting up the EEAS.

Based on her suggestions, EU heads of states and government are expected to come to a decision on the EU's new diplomatic corps by the end of April (see 'Background').

"For the Lisbon Treaty, it took us a nine-year pregnancy," Vale de Almeida said. Comparing this with the short timeframe for adopting the EEAS, he said "birth after three months will be very difficult".

The top official said it was extremely important to design the EU's new diplomatic service in "the best possible way" and called on EU member countries to show "political will".

Implicitly, he appeared to confirm that the blueprint, already drafted by Ashton's committee, was encountering difficulties in some member countries.

A "long discussion" had taken place at the level of EU member-state ambassadors (Coreper) yesterday, he said, and talks were due to continue at the informal foreign ministers' meeting in Cordoba, Spain, tomorrow (5 March). The European Parliament will also have a say, he added.

But recruiting staff from the member countries will take time, Vale de Almeida said, adding that upgrading the European Commission's existing network of foreign delegations will also take "a few months".

Speaking to EURACTIV, Vale de Almeida said that if the decision was taken by the end of April as planned, he expected the service to start work by the end of the year.

An assessment on both the EEAS and the Lisbon Treaty would come "maybe at the end of 2012," he said. "We would shoot ourselves in the foot" if conclusions were drawn now, he added, because there are lots of critical voices saying that the Lisbon Treaty is not working and that "the people we chose are not the best ones".

Bildt and Miliband acknowledge turf wars

Meanwhile, Britain's foreign minister David Miliband, a socialist, and his conservative counterpart from Sweden, Carl Bildt, published an open letter, expressing concern "about some of the inter-institutional struggles evident in our current negotiations on the EEAS package".

"A new culture may end up being the hardest aspect for the EEAS to develop," they write ahead of the Cordoba meeting.

The two ministers appear to give Ashton a helping hand in securing for the EEAS a grated field of action that the Commission would agree to release.

In particular, under the heading "funding", the ministers insist that more operational budgets, such as the CFSP budget and the stability instrument, are put under EEAS control.

Also, under the heading "programming", they plead that in the areas of the European Development Fund (EDF), the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI), the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), EEAS would play a "strategic role". This, according to a EU diplomat, would mean the EEAS taking the lead at the strategic phase and the Commission following up with implementation.

On staffing, Miliband and Bildt ask for equal powers between the EU civil servants and the so-called "temporary agents" working in the new service. Up till now in the EU institutions, civil servants had more rights in areas such as budget management, compared to 'temporary agents' at the same level of the hierarchy. EU countries are expected to send to the EEAS national diplomats, who will be given the status of temporary agents.

The ministers stress that EEAS needs "the brightest and the best from wherever they come". However, diplomats admitted that other member countries, such as the EU newcomers, would place more importance on geographic balance than merit criteria.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the tight schedule for putting in place the EEAS, Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) said goals and timing were "extremely difficult".

"What Mr. Almeida alluded is that in April there will be a draft report by the High Representative, in order to have the new law adopted as required by the Council, because it's a package of law proposals that is being negotiated right now. It is true that the Parliament is consulted only on the External Action Service, of its establishment. But it has full co-decision powers on staff regulations and on the budget of the new institution. So the Parliament is fully involved in the negotiation process."

"There is the possibility that negotiations would drag on, but there is massive political pressure to meet deadlines. Political players want to have the EEAS fast for post-Copenhagen, for [the next UN-led conference on climate change in] Cancun. If some circles complain about the poor performance of the High Representative, then partially they are right: it is because there is no system in place."

"The biggest responsibility lies with member states. Not the Commission or Catherine Ashton. Because they appointed her and because all these difficult questions should have been solved between December 2007 [when the Lisbon Treaty was signed] and now. They could have done it behind closed doors. I understand that they haven't done it so that they would not be accused of prejudging the result of the second Irish referendum, but there is a cost to it."

Asked if Catherine Ashton, who appears overstretched, would need deputies, he said: "Yes, I think Catherine Ashton needs deputies. But I don't think that the minister of foreign affairs of Spain [the rotating EU presidency] should be her deputy. I think she needs deputies in the EEAS."

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 authors.

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

At this point, the EEAS is still a blueprint circulated by Ashton's services internally. But it is already attracting nervous reactions from member states and the EU institutions.

Without a legal base, the recruitment process has not started yet, although at the highest level EU politicians have expressed the wish to have the EEAS operational by July or even September.

Once finalised, the EEAS should comprise some 5,000 officials, a size comparable to the foreign policy office of a large European state. The German Foreign Office, for instance, employs some 6,000 diplomats.

  • 5-6 March: Informal meeting of foreign ministers in Cordoba, Spain. EEAS on the agenda.
  • End of April: Deadline for the adoption of legislation regulating the organisation and functioning of the EEAS.

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