European Union Foreign Ministers are meeting today (26 April 2010) in Luxembourg to consider controversial proposals prepared by Baroness Ashton for a new External Action Service (EAS) which will be responsible for all EU diplomatic services around the world. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy desperately needs approval from Member States for her EAS blue-print which has been dogged by criticism for its proposed structure and budgets.
The High Representative has published new proposals a month after her original plan issued on March 25th, was roundly slammed for creating the role of an all-powerful Secretary-General. The new structure sees a triumvirate running the 7,000- strong service. One of the triumvirates would deputise for her at official diplomatic visits. It is not known whether this would be another Commissioner, with a remit in external policy – or even a Foreign Minister from one of the Member States. The Lisbon Treaty does not provide for an official deputy but the three posts are expected to be occupied by heavy-weights in order to give the High Representative the support she clearly needs if she is to make the EAS a success.
The new structure, already provisionally agreed by ambassadors to the EU, is designed to reflect the prevailing interests of the Commission and the Council in EU foreign policy – the Commission, because it is still reluctant to relinquish control over budgets for delegations to countries around the world; and the Council because Member States retain full responsibilities for their foreign policies. However, the new command structure, while trying to accommodate both the Council and the Commission, runs the risk of creating further confusion over who is running the EU’s foreign policy.
A more immediate concern for Baroness Ashton is the growing criticism from MEPs over the lack of accountability of the new EAS. A German Christian Democrat MEP, Ingeborg Graessle, has said that the Ashton proposals are in violation of European laws since they do not provide for any accountability to the European Commission or to the European Parliament.
German MEP Elmar Brok, who is responsible for writing the European Parliament’s report on the proposals, has threatened to pull the plug on the proposals if they are not changed to improve accountability to the Parliament. MEPs refuse to believe the claim by Baroness Ashton will be budget-neutral (ie: would not cost more than the costs of the structure that it will replace). The European Parliament has the power to block the budget for the EAS if it does not agree to its proposed structure.
Once foreign ministers give their approval to the plans today, attention will turn to MEPs who are already critical not just of the plans but also of the architect. The proposals are seen as an important test of the credibility of the newly-appointed High Representative – who just four months into office, has been dismissed by many as a “lightweight” and could even bring about her downfall.
Cathy Ashton took office as soon as the Lisbon Treaty was ratified and was the UK’s candidate for the role after British Foreign Secretary turned it down.
UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was criticized at home for nominating some-one who had so little experience on the international stage. Baroness Ashton was appointed Trade Commissioner only when Lord Mandelson was recalled to Government. It was also seen as a victory for the French who were free to put their man – Michel Barnier – in the coveted Internal Market Commissioner position. Stephen Booth, Director of the Brussels and London think tank “Open Europe” dismissed her as a “complete lightweight”.
The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Savage immediately criticized Baroness Ashton for failing to turn up in Haiti to fly the EU flag after the earthquake. She told journalists she didn’t do “disaster tourism”. She was also criticized by the French Europe Minister, Pierre Lelouche for going to Ukraine for the inauguration of the pro-Russian Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovich rather than a major European defence conference in Majorca. The French have also criticized her for going to London every weekend and having de-briefing sessions on a Friday at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
On 8th March, The High Representative faced down her critics at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Córdoba. Her position had been so badly weakened, she took with her a letter signed by David Miliband and Swedish foreign secretary Carl Bildt saying that EU foreign ministers should get behind her and her plans for the EAS. The storm abated for a short while, before the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy summoned her to the Elysée Palace where he reportedly gave her a dressing down for “amateurism” and, quelle horreur - having such a poor command of French. Monsieur Lelouche made an impertinent offer to arrange a residential French language class for the High Representative.
However, to British ears, the sniping sounded like Paris begrudged losing control of international diplomacy – a policy sphere that France guarded jealously. And given that she needed time to learn the ropes, Baroness Ashton was given the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, the negative response to her proposals for the EAS has put Baroness Ashton in a very dangerous place. Der Spiegel last week reports that there is a growing body of MEPs from across the political spectrum who question whether she is the right person for the job. With a basic salary of €323,000, she is the world’s highest paid female politician and MEPs wonder whether she is out of her depth.
The European People’s Party – a coalition of European Centre-Right parties in the European Parliament – have been sceptical about Baroness Ashton’s capabilities from the outset. Not long after she was approved by the European Parliament, an official spokesperson for the EPP Chairman, Joseph Daul went on record as saying; “We expect a lot from the position of High Representative. So far she has not met that level of expectation. We are not trying to destroy her but want an improvement in her work.” He even was far as saying; “It’s not right to assume she is there for five years. She can be removed. Something must change.”
Political point-scoring alone cannot explain the Ashton-bashing. The EPP cannot get rid of her and have her replaced by one of their own – the deal was always going to be a Centre Left High Representative in return for living with a Centre-Right President – Mr Van Rompuy. It cannot be explained either by Anglophobia since the French were happy with securing the Internal Market portfolio for Michel Barnier and in fact the French President had even boasted that they had beaten the British in securing the job. The only explanation is turf-war politics – The French and Germans want a say in the appointment of key EU ambassadors in the new EAS, concerned that it will become a British Foreign Office writ large. It doesn’t help either that in addition, the Commission President is behind a power grab for the EU aid and development funds.
There are some signs of encouragement for Baroness Ashton’s supporters. Its been acknowledged in diplomatic circles that she has developed a chemistry with US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton and that the appointment of Poul Skytte Christofferon, former Danish Ambassador to the EU, as her special adviser, is considered generally as a good thing.
Nevertheless, there is a real threat that the Baroness might not survive much longer. Brussels is watching the UK election very closely to see what will happen. Should Labour lose the General Election in the UK, she would lose the support of her biggest backer. Her detractors could petition for her replacement – perhaps with David Milliband, the outgoing British Foreign Secretary.