EU Diplomatic Service to Start in December on Schedule; Parliamentary Hurdle Cleared     Print Email

The planned EU “diplomatic service” won final formal approval by the European Parliament in a landslide vote on July 8, clearing the way for the new corps – officially known as the European External Action Service -- to start work on December 1. This date means that the service will be set up within one year of its authorization by the Lisbon Treaty, sooner than many skeptics had predicted. This track record may bode well for the future of the service and its head, EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, who has emerged with fresh stature after her success in speedily establishing this new corps.


With the parliamentary victory, Ashton can now start recruiting members of the diplomatic service in order to get it up and running. Then she will face the real challenge of making sure that the External Action Service can play its part in achieving the foreign-policy ambitions set out for the EU by the Lisbon Treaty.

The European External Action Service, conceived by the Lisbon Treaty as a key pillar of a more coherent and ambitious EU foreign policy, has undergone months of difficult negotiations. Crucial progress was made at a three-hour-long meeting in Madrid on June 21 that brought together Ashton, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, Foreign Minister of Spain (the country that held the rotating EU Presidency), Maroš Šefcovic, the European Commissioner for Inter-institutional Relations and Administration, along with three members of the European Parliament to help iron out the remaining issues. All parties involved now seem confident that the European External Action Service will be up and running by December 1, in time for the first anniversary of the Lisbon Treaty.

In an earlier article on the subject, European Affairs painted a picture of a nascent service still mostly defined by discord and turf wars. Some limited initial agreements on the architecture of the future service provided for six departments organized along geographical and thematic lines, entailing nine senior positions, including three Secretaries-General, but the central question of staffing was controversial. It was stipulated that the actual diplomats would come from the Commission, the EU Council, and member states. But smaller member states wanted to ensure that they gained adequate representation; bigger member states were fighting for the top jobs; and the actual member governments were struggling with the Commission and the Council over the extent of the new service’s exact responsibilities.

By the end of April, Ashton (left) had managed to ensure compromise over these conflicting demands, first obtaining the backing of the Commission for her blueprint of the diplomatic corps, and then getting the support of the European Council. The European Parliament, however, still refused to come on board. The Lisbon Treaty had mandated that Ashton consult with MEPs over the structure of the External Action Service, and the latter argued that their views had not been taken enough into account. Although the European Parliament does not dictate policy, it effectively wields veto power: as German MEP Elmar Brok pointed out, “The Parliament is competent for the budget. That means that the Service cannot have any staff if the Parliament does not approve its budget"; Ashton needed to sway the Parliament by addressing the concerns it had regarding the Service. Specifically, they raised a number of objections to Ashton’s blueprint, including:

  • Insisting that the future service be attached to the Commission, in order for it to have a more communitarian than inter-governmental nature.
  • Demanding that Ashton’s deputies, when she cannot brief the Parliament, be politically accountable, and not unelected EU officials.
  • Warning against the powerful position of Secretary General of the service, likened to a spider sitting at the top of the web.
  • Criticizing the power-sharing agreement between the Commission and the future diplomatic corps over development and neighborhood policy as hardly a recipe for coherence.

Following the clash between Ashton and the European Parliament, the Madrid meeting on June 21 enabled Ashton to smooth over the differences with the European Parliament. The main details of the compromise are as follows

  • The External Action Service will be an autonomous body, headquartered in Brussels, and with an ultimate staff of several thousands. It will have its own budget of about 3 billion Euros, subject to political control from the Parliament.
  • MEPs will be consulted before EU actions abroad.
  • Only 40% of the staff will be allowed to be temporary diplomats from member states, the rest will be permanent.
  • There will be no quotas for member states.
  • Strategic country planning will take place within the External Action Service, but ultimate programming decisions for aid will take place within the Commission.
  • Ashton will be deputized by either the relevant EU Commissioner or by the foreign minister of the country holding the rotating EU Presidency.
  • The Service will have a Secretary General and two deputy Secretary Generals. For the top job, a post responsible for the day-to-day running of the EEAS, rumor has it going to Pierre Vimont (right), current French Ambassador to Washington, who is known for his extensive experience as a career diplomat and his experience with EU affairs. His deputy secretaries would be: Polish European Affairs Minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz and Germany’s Helga Schmid.

This staffing, if it materializes, would put a Briton (Ms. Ashton) on top, followed by a senior French official (Mr. Vimont), flanked by a German (Ms. Schmid), who comes from the team of Javier Solana, the previous long-serving high representative who led EU diplomacy up until the time of the EU treaty's ratification, and a Pole (Mr. Dowgielewicz), from the "new Europe".

Garret Martin is editor-at-large at European Affairs.