Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has begun to push back against attempts by the European Commission to curtail the powers of the Union’s emerging diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS). The ongoing tug-of-war between the Commission and the member states, with Ashton caught in the middle, appears increasingly likely to delay the service’s establishment beyond April.
In a set of three papers that were discussed by member states’ ambassadors yesterday (3 March) and that are on the agenda of an informal meeting of member states’ foreign ministers tomorrow (5 March), and will be discussed by the Commission next Thursday (11 March), Ashton laid out her vision for the service, which is supposed to be established next month by a decision of the EU’s national governments. The EEAS is to be autonomous of both the Commission and the Council of Ministers, which represents the member states, although it will be staffed by officials from the two institutions as well as from the diplomatic services of the member states.
Under Ashton’s draft proposal, the service is to absorb all country desks currently located in the Commission or the Council’s secretariat-general with the exception of desks dealing with actual or potential candidates for membership of the EU.
The heads of the Union’s embassies abroad are to supervise all officials working in their mission, regardless of whether they are from the new diplomatic service or the Commission, to avoid conflicting lines of accountability.
Policymaking in development aid will be shifted to the EEAS under Ashton’s plans.
All three are points on which the Commission takes a very different line: it wants to retain responsibility for development aid, keep within the Commission the desks dealing with countries in the EU’s neighbourhood such as Ukraine and the Middle East, and have Commission staff in the delegations report to their Commission directorate-general rather than to the EEAS headquarters. “The Commission will not accept the principle of a single country desk” at the EEAS, a diplomat said.
Ashton’s proposals follow a fairly standard template familiar from most national foreign services. Slightly unusually – but understandably, given that the EU has no defence department – they also foresee that the EEAS would absorb the EU’s military and civilian crisis response capacities and its intelligence cell, the “Situation Centre”.
There is one nod to Commission interests in Ashton’s papers, however: they propose that the Commission would either be fully involved in the appointment of heads of delegations or would, at a minimum, have to agree to them. Some member states oppose this. They say that Ashton, by virtue of her mandate as a Commission vice-president, already secures the involvement of the Commission and that no further Commission endorsement would be needed.
Several diplomats suggested that the turf war between Commission and member states now risks delaying the establishment of the EEAS beyond April. “The capitals assume that the problems will not be resolved by April,” a diplomat said. Another source suggested that a delay would benefit the Commission by extending its control of delegations, country desks and finance instruments.
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