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The European External Action Service: Getting it right?

19 May 2010

While attention is focused on the Greek deficit crisis, the European Union (EU) is quietly working on some of its institutional reforms contained in the Lisbon Treaty.  For one, the contour and design of the new External Action Service (EAS) are now being finalised.

On 26 April, EU’s foreign ministers came to a political agreement on the design of the EAS. The plan is to have it as a “functionally autonomous body of the European Union, separate from the Commission and the General Secretariat of the Council.”  The EAS, consisting of a central administration in Brussels (with “geographical desks covering all countries and regions of the world as well as multilateral and thematic desks”) and Union Delegations,  would be “placed under the authority” of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton.

The ball is now in European Parliamentarians’ (MEPs) court. Although the European Parliament is simply consulted on the functioning of the EAS, it has a right of veto over the budget and staff; this means that, in fact, their consent is needed on the general setup of the EAS as well. Despite the reassurances by Baroness Ashton that many of the Parliament’s concerns have been “taken on board”, all signs from the MEPs show that lengthy negotiations lie ahead.

Baroness Ashton is in a difficult position: if she compromises too much with the MEPs, she would have to go back to the Council and Commission, which have already agreed to the outline of the EAS proposal. So far, Baroness Ashton has offered MEPs specific promises on political accountability and budgets within the EAS, committing herself to consulting the Parliament on Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) matters before taking action: Parliament will be consulted on the “adoption of strategies, mandates for CFSP missions financed out of the EU budget or for the appointment of EUSRs [EU special representatives].” The Parliament had also wanted authority over the appointments of the new heads of delegations and special representatives, but Baroness Ashton refused this, instead agreeing that they would appear before Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs prior to their postings. All this signals that the European Parliament want and will have an increased say in the EU’s external relations.

Another contentious issue will be the staffing of the new EAS (which will employ some 7000 people). The idea is that it will be formed by the staff from external relations services in the Commission and the Council and from the diplomatic services of the Member States. So far, most discussions have been about the very top jobs in the EAS. The “draft decision” on the table, as agreed by the Member States, envisages creating a board of three directors with elevated “executive secretary-general” and two other “political” and “operations” positions. Given the institutional importance of these posts (they will be responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the EAS), Member States are already lobbying to fill these posts with their candidates.

Whatever the agreed nuances of the institutional setup, similar manoeuvring between different institutional and national interests will be inherent to the EAS.  The most significant political decisions will still be taken at the Council between the Member States and the EAS will have to follow the guidelines given by the Council. There has been much talk whether the High Representative and EAS should be closer to the Commission or the Council (indeed, Baroness Ashton has two “hats” – she is accountable to the Council in carrying out the EU’s foreign policy, but serves also as a Vice President of the Commission). The issue here is primarily about the principles behind the decision-making: Member States want to be reassured that those questions that are still intergovernmental (like CFSP) would not be affected by the “Community method”, but the MEPs are critical of backtracking on Community principles because of the independence of the EAS from the Commission. Therefore, the two Parliament’s general rapporteurs on the EAS have asked for the EAS to be integrated into the Commission in administrative and budgetary terms, so that Parliament could better oversee its budget. They also want the High Representative to be “totally accountable” to the Parliament. It means that the whole institutional setup might still change.

When looking at the lengthy process of compromising between so many different interests, it is easy to forget that the idea behind all these efforts is to give the EU a greater international visibility and let it “speak with one voice” on the global stage, especially so, if one observes the whole process from the outside. As it was stressed by the Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb: “We live in a new, multi-polar world with a plethora of players ranging from China to Brazil, India and Russia. They could not care less if Europe cannot get its act together (…) It’s time to stop the Brussels-centred infighting and the institutional fundamentalism. We simply have to give a green light to this” It is in the interest of all to reach an agreement as fast as possible (the hope is to do so by the next European Council meeting on 17-18 June, but this seems overly optimistic in the light of many objections put forward by MEPs), so that it can “bring together in a joined-up way our response to the issues that we face in the world and promote comprehensive policies,” as hoped by Baroness Ashton.

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