EU diplomatic service ‘hostage of budget constraints’

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The newly-formed European External Action Service is at risk of falling short of its promises if negotiations on the EU budget post-2013 do not manage to increase the European Union’s financial means, said MEPs yesterday (10 February)..

Participating in a panel discussion organised by the Bureau for European Political Advisors (BEPA), the European Commission's internal think-tank, three members of the European Parliament warned that unless EU countries understand that the bloc's new competences require a fresh injection of cash to be implemented fully, delivering on some of the Lisbon Treaty's innovations, like the European External Action Service (EEAS), will be 'Mission Impossible'.

"It is wrong to talk about budget neutrality as we need to put some flesh on the bones," said German liberal MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff.

Italian Socialist MEP Roberto Gualtieri went even further, arguing that if the European Union's budget were to be capped, the EEAS would probably be held hostage by a funding fight between member states and the European Parliament.

Investing in EEAS 'very difficult'

"If we go for a 0.9%-1% share of the budget for administrative costs it will be very difficult to invest in the EEAS," said Gualtieri.

The nascent EU diplomatic service was launched on 1 December 2010, the first anniversary of the Lisbon Treaty's entry into force.

In budgetary terms, the EEAS will be treated as an EU institution, in that it will have its own section of the EU budget like other institutions. The budget will have to be vetted by the European Parliament. 

The EU assembly will therefore exercise full budgetary control powers vis-à-vis the EEAS, but the Commission will remain in charge of the service's operational expenditure.

According to Gualtieri, the Commission should be more involved in the practical implementation of EU foreign policy rather than getting bogged down in defending its bureaucratic role.

The newly-appointed EEAS secretary-general and former French ambassador to Washington, Pierre Vimont, was positive about member states' recognition of the service's usefulness.

No more 'navel-gazing'

"We are moving in the right direction,"said Vimont, stressing that international partners had spoken in encouraging terms about the establishment of the EEAS. But "we need to move quickly and cannot spend time navel-gazing," he said, stressing the need to concentrate on urgent matters like the need to deliver a coherent and strong EU foreign policy.

"We should stop looking at ourselves and see how others look at us," insisted the former French ambassador.

According to Vimont, member states are eager to discuss measures to be taken on many crises erupting around the world – not least the latest one in Egypt.

Turning to the Egyptian 'revolution', Vimont conceded that the EU does not and cannot have exclusive competence on the matter, "and not even a shared one"with member states. "It is something in between," he said.

In the words of the EEAS secretary-general, Europe needs to give out on external issues "the same message, spoken by 27 voices".

Global affairs must now to be dealt with by using an integrated approach. Europe is in an advantageous position over its international partners and can put together a strategic response using the economic, diplomatic, defence and security instruments at its disposal, as was the case for piracy off the coast of Somalia, explained Vimont.

However, member states must move away from the eternal conflict between the Community and intergovernmental approach, he warned.

"It is time to see that we have a unique opportunity to create something that is acceptable for both sides and that is worthwhile for the international community,"while at the same time asserting Europe's power in the world, said Vimont, adding that it would be unfortunate to see small EU countries sidelined by the six biggest ones.

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

The establishment of the EEAS has also triggered nervous reactions from the EU institutions. In particular, the European Parliament has shown its muscle and has managed to speak with one voice in calling for a more communitarian approach.

Last July, EU foreign ministers gave their final approval to the EEAS, paving the way for the diplomatic corps "to come into being" by December 2010. Since then, attention has shifted to budgetary issues and the battle to assign top positions.

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