The discrete appointment of José Manuel Barroso's former chief of cabinet as EU Ambassador to Washington sparked protests and controversy over the way the future European External Action Service will be built.
Speaking to journalists, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt described the appointment of João Vale de Almeida, the Commission president's former head of cabinet, as a "downgrade" for the EU in Washington.
"The question is why this downgrade has taken place," he said, adding: "I want to know the Commission's motives […] I'm not sure they're in line with the Lisbon Treaty."
Swedish sources described the appointment as a "golden opportunity" to solidify José Manuel Barroso's own power within the new EU hierarchy. Installing someone from his own inner circle as the EU's man in Washington could make Barroso Brussels' primary interlocutor with the USA and help sideline Ashton, pundits pointed out.
The move triggered a wider discussion about the recruitment policy for the new European External Action Service (EEAS). A number of member states, especially those of the 2004 and 2007 enlargements, are underrepresented in the EU institutions, particularly in foreign representations.
De Almeida's appointment might in fact backfire against the Commission's secretive preparations to establish the EEAS. De Almeida currently heads the steering committee in charge of putting together Ashton's proposals for the new service. The committee also includes Catherine Day (secretary-general of the Commission), Pierre de Boissieau (secretary-general of the Council) and Robert Cooper (director-general at the Council Secretariat for External Economic Relations and Politico-Military Affairs).
The 53-year-old Portuguese would still have a window of opportunity as head of the Commission's external relations department to make his mark on the draft proposals before moving to Washington.
Stanley Crossick, founding director of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think-tank, says "the appointment of a Portuguese official, formerly Barroso's chef de cabinet, smacks of patronage and inappropriate influence".
"This appointment is a continuation of the Commission's unfortunate appointment policy. It could well discourage well-qualified national civil servants from applying to join the EEAS, which must be a meritocracy," Crossick wrote on his blog.
Controversial Lithuanian named Afghan envoy
In the meantime, a former Lithuanian foreign minister forced to resign this year after denying his country hosted a secret CIA prison was named the EU special representative in Afghanistan.
Vygaudas Usackas, 46, who has served as ambassador to Britain and United States, won approval of EU foreign ministers after his candidacy was proposed by the bloc's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
"I am 100 percent satisfied with this appointment … and there is nothing I need to be in any way worried about," Ashton told a news briefing after a meeting with foreign ministers, quoted by Reuters.
EU diplomats said that the nomination of a EU representative in Afghanistan was a major step forward, as before him several diplomats represented the Union in the troubled country – the head of the Commission delegation, the head of EUPOL, the ambassador, representing the EU presidency.
Candidates get nervous
An high-ranking diplomat from a large founding member of the EU recently told EURACTIV that recruitment for the future EEAS would take place largely from among existing staff of the Council and Commission services.
This diplomat also expressed the view that with the Lisbon Treaty, the rotating EU presidencies would lose ground to the advantage of the High Representative and large EU countries, which traditionally play an important role in foreign affairs.
However, this is not the way the EU new members would like the EEAS to be built, as they are striving to appoint people from their national diplomatic services.
In the absence of a clear recruitment procedure, candidates wishing to join the service are getting nervous, EURACTIV has learned. Civil servants from within the EU institutions say it would be unjust if newcomers from the member states were to be "parachuted in" and therefore avoid the difficult recruitment procedures that all EU officials normally have to endure.
On the other hand, hopefuls from national administrations expressed fear that civil servants already in place would fill most vacancies and in any case get the best positions.