Slow Start for Europe's "Diplomatic Service" Signals Birth Pangs -- or Worse Problems     Print Email

Europe’s “diplomatic service” is getting off to a slow start, with some initial deadlines already bound to be overrun. The practical difficulties of setting up the “External Action Service” (EAS) are turning out to be more considerable than planners apparently imagined, and many officials are now saying, as suggested here in European Affairs late last year, it may take the lifetime of a European Commission or even two for the new arm of EU collective diplomacy to show its muscle.

An encouraging development is the flurry of rumors about candidates for the top positions in the new “diplomatic service.” The chatter is apparently smoke from the real political fire kindled by friction over actually filling key positions with experienced European officials. If named soon, they could quickly help Baroness Catherine Ashton get some traction as she tries to build her role – from scratch – as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

Rumors about leading candidates for top jobs cite senior diplomats from the bigger states in the EU -- including the current French ambassador to the U.S., Pierre Vimont, and also the secretary-general of the French Foreign Ministry, Pierre Sellal, and a senior aide to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Christoph Heusgen. All are mentioned as the top candidates for the powerful new position of Secretary General of the future diplomatic corps. Ensuring that the spoils are properly shared between the larger states will not be easy but it will be vital, since it is unlikely that the future European foreign service could work effectively without their strong backing. It will be especially important to placate Germany which has already complained about what it views as a British attempt to dominate the future EAS – Ashton’s high-level steering group included only one German for three British members.

In a fresh sign of the difficulties to be ironed out, complaints emerged from Germany on March 18 about the proposed EAS blueprint as being “too French” – meaning that the plan gives too much authority to the “secretary general” and too little access to the High Representative for other EU diplomats in the fledging foreign service. In addition, the German official -- a senior party figure in the Free Democrats – complained that the plan seemed to put too much authority over military matters into the hands of the service led by the High Representative, at the expense of inter-governmental decision-making on issues that could involve German troops on EU missions. The Free Democrats, as junior partner in the ruling coalition in Berlin, hold the portfolio for foreign affairs.

Representative Ashton, helped by a thirteen strong high-level steering group, has drafted a blueprint that certainly clarifies the organigram of the future diplomatic corps. Her proposal, to be submitted this week in Brussels, calls for the creation of nine senior posts: a secretary general, two deputy secretary generals and, below them, six director generals. The Secretary General will run day to day affairs, and oversee the work of the six director generals and a number of autonomous cells including the EU's Military Staff. The six director generals will each run one of the six planned departments: budget and personnel; “global affairs” such as climate change, human rights and democracy promotion; EU relations with multilateral bodies; EU neighborhood countries, accession candidates, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East; industrialized countries such as the US, Canada, Mexico, China, Japan and Australia; developing countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Ocean.

While this suggested organigram will most likely not be controversial, the same cannot be said for the negotiations over the staffing of the EAS. As it stands, the projected six thousand strong corps will include officials from the Commission, the European Council, and diplomats seconded from the member states. Making sure all these various constituencies feel fully involved will be no easy feat. Already, the newer member states of the EU, such as Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic, are warning that they might lose interest in the common foreign policy unless they are given a sense of joint ownership. They are hoping that their seconded diplomats will be well represented to compensate existing disparities. As the EU Observer points out, out of the 1,657 foreign relations officials of the Commission ready to be transferred en bloc into the service, only 117 come from the twelve new countries that joined since 2004, meaning that the corps risks inheriting a severe geographic skew.

The overall staffing dilemmas were explained bluntly by Hungary’s State Secretary Gábor Iklódy, the political director of the Hungarian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, to a European Institute meeting. “The aggregate of EAS staff should not exceed the number of those currently employed by the current [similar] service, but if you put together these different services, there will be overlaps because there are areas where both the Commission has people working and also the Council Secretariat. So instead of creating head room for member states to go in, [the fusion will have] just the opposite effect [of overstaffing]. You are not supposed to fire people from within the Commission just in order to create that head room. It’s very difficult and there are all kinds of efforts, us pushing obviously for making sure that from day one, there is as sizeable as possible member-state contingent in it. On the Commission side, obviously, there is more interest in making sure that their colleagues have a future and do not get fired just in order to satisfy the new countries. So there are very contradictory interests in this, but it will be ironed out,” he said.

In addition to the balancing act over staffing, the power struggle between the Commission and the member states in regards to the responsibilities of the future diplomatic corps shows no signs of abating. Three areas, in particular, continue to divide both sides. First, the Commission is angered about the possible scope of the External Action Service and its claims over thematic desks, such as climate change negotiations, which used to be under the Commission’s remit. Second, the Commission is also upset that it may lose responsibility for relations with developing countries – although a compromise is gaining traction whereby the diplomatic service would formulate strategy and the Commission would implement programs. Third, the Commission wants to continue running the EU delegations abroad, which is clearly unacceptable for the member states.

Undoubtedly, these issues of contention will not be easy to solve. As British Foreign Minister David Miliband and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt acknowledged in an open letter sent to High Representative Ashton on 3 March “the inter-institutional rivalries are well-engrained. A new culture may end up being the hardest aspect of the EAS to develop.” Yet, these difficulties must be overcome, even if means not respecting initial deadlines. Failure to establish an effective EAS would be a major indictment on Ashton’s record, and could seriously undermine the ambition of the Lisbon Treaty to make Europe a strong and united voice on the international stage.

The European Union was understandably ecstatic after the Lisbon Treaty entered into force on 1 December 2009. Of course, the success of the Lisbon Treaty can only be assessed over a number of years, but some early signs have not lived up to expectations. The multiplicity of voices in the diplomatic field – between the six month rotating national presidency, the Commission and the High Representative, who speaks for Europe? – has so far created more confusion than clarity, especially for Europe’s partners. The selections for the two new prominent positions, Herman Van Rompuy for the Presidency of the European Council and British Catherine Ashton for the role of foreign policy chief, were particularly underwhelming, suggesting that they had been picked as compromise candidates rather than because of their credentials. President Van Rompuy provided a positive surprise for many observers when he gave a policy address that did not try to gloss over EU problems and offer over-optimistic views about the problems and time-table for a stronger post-Lisbon EU. “The more the Union deals with foreign affairs, in the coming decade, the most certain differences in attitude between member-states bill rise to the surface,” he explained. His speech was widely hailed as the most substantive effort so far by the new team to publicly provide a realistic delineation of the outlook for a stronger EU foreign and security policy.

As for the European diplomatic service, negotiations on its functioning and responsibilities are proving far more contentious than originally assumed, making any agreement unlikely by the deadline of the end of April set by the European Council.

By Garret Martin