EU gets to work on building a diplomatic service


  • World
  • Thursday, 04 Mar 2010

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers meet in Spain on Friday to discuss setting up a European diplomatic service to project a better image of the EU to the world.

The External Action Service is being created under the Lisbon treaty, the EU charter which came into force in December and is designed to give the bloc's 27 member states the same influence in foreign affairs as they have in trade and finance.

But even before it has been established, the EAS is causing tensions and division, with rival visions emerging of how it should be built and run. Britain's Catherine Ashton, who is the EU's top diplomat and will head the service, is also under fire over the appointment of an ambassador to Washington.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who wrote to Ashton last month expressing concern over how a mid-ranking Portuguese diplomat Joao Vale de Almeida was named EU Washington envoy, wrote to her again on Wednesday offering advice on the EAS.

In the letter, co-authored with Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Bildt urged Ashton to use the meeting in Spain to check the direction the EAS is going in and ensure the service meets its aim of boosting the EU's global role.

"There is an increasing demand for EU action in the world -- a demand that is substantially bigger than the supply for the moment," Bildt and Miliband wrote.

"The EAS is at the centre of ensuring that the EU's role is enhanced in this way. We need the EAS to be as effective as possible on the world stage ... and flexible enough to be able to adapt quickly to changing geopolitical circumstances."

DIPLOMATIC TURF BATTLES

The EAS is expected to employ more than 3,000 diplomats and have missions in almost all countries. It was expected to be finalised by the end of April but diplomatic sources say that deadline will not be met and many issues are unresolved.

Among them are decisions about the corps' scope and structure, about funding and the sensitivity of who to appoint to the top embassies, including the missions in Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, Brasilia and other big trading partners.

As well as trying to have the biggest say in the new service, member states are battling with other EU institutions -- especially the European Commission -- to shape the service as they see fit, particularly when it comes to top jobs.

Decisions about how to staff and organise it will be taken by three branches of power -- the member states, the executive Commission and the European Council secretariat, a civil service for bloc's members. Each wants to ensure it has the biggest influence, particularly over top staff.

Miliband and Bildt said turf battles risked undermining the very purpose of the EAS before it has even got under way.

"We acknowledge that the inter-institutional rivalries are well-engrained. A new culture may end up being the hardest aspect of the EAS to develop," the two ministers wrote.

An extended battle over the EAS would be another setback for the EU, which wants to make itself more relevant to the rest of the world and is trying to smooth internal decision-making -- which the Lisbon treaty was supposed to sort out.

The multi-headed leadership of the EU -- which now has a permanent president, but is also represented by the head of the EU Commission and by leaders of national governments -- contributed to a decision by U.S. President Barack Obama not to attend an EU-U.S. summit scheduled for May, White House officials indicated.

The EU will want to avoid such diplomatic embarrassments in the future, and hopes the External Action Service will help.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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