Monday, November 8, 2010

Cathy Ashton gets her EU Foreign Service – with a little help from William Hague

The EU institutions have, despite some last-minute political wrangling, reached a settlement on a new European diplomacy service. The Lisbon Treaty allowed for an External Action Service with the objective of matching Europe’s economic status in the world with a similar diplomatic clout.

However Cathy Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, had to contend with competing demands from MEPs, national governments and the European Commission, all with different views on what the scale and scope of the new foreign service operations should look like.

In Strasbourg this week MEPs voted to adopt the European External Action Service Staff Regulation, the Financial Regulation and the EEAS 2010 budget. The EAS will now be operational on schedule - from 1st December.

EU foreign ministers in July already paved the way for the EAS to be operational from 1st December. Member State governments – including the UK Conservatives, who had been critical of the EAS plans before they came to office – were keen for the EAS to be a success.

However, rows broke out soon after over the budget and over appointments. Nevertheless, Cathy Ashton has defied her critics – and she has had many – by casting aside controversy over the budget and over national and georaphical quotas for the EAS staffing regulations. The vote this week means, the High Representative can now get on with the business of appointing around 80 senior diplomats. She will then, over the next two years, recruit officials from the Council General Secretariat and from national diplomatic services. Eventually, the EAS is expected to be staffed by around 6,000 officials.
The EAS is possibly the most significant of the innovations brought about by the Lisbon Treaty. And it was the unqualified support of the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague that helped make it happen

In a major speech on foreign policy on 1st July, William Hague set out his vision for a United Kingdom that is “highly active and activist in our approach to the European Union and the exercise of its collective weight in the world”. This was not the Euro-passive Conservative Government we had been led to expect

This represented a major shift in Hague’s view of the world. In opposition, he was particularly hostile to the EU external relations policy as conceived by Lisbon. As shadow foreign secretary, he was bitterly opposed to the appointment of Tony Blair as EU Council President, fearing that, as an international statesman, Mr Blair would give the EU too much legitimacy on the world stage.

And now, Mr Hague is making the case for a stronger British presence within the EU institutions. He says that the number of British “A” officials has fallen by 205 since 2007, he says; “As a new Government we are determined to put this right”.

Although there is no guarantee that nationality provides any support for any particular national policy, it is important for the UK that British diplomacy is ingrained in the new External Action Service.

William Hague understands the real-politik of a common European foreign and defence policy and the EAS is a practical way of demonstrating Europe’s power to the world – at a time when the UK, France and Germany are losing their individual impact on world events and when their bilateral relations with countries like India and China are becoming less relevant to world affairs.

Spending cuts at the UK Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, announced this week, was in part made possible because of the new powers and responsibilities of the External Action Service.

So the EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs – and former Labour peer, Cathy Ashton can thank William Hague for the success this week in securing a smooth transition to a powerful new global institution. Mr Hague has paved the way for a powerful international diplomatic service which will finally give the EU a single voice in the world. But Cathy Ashton must receive her fair share of praise for the success in setting up the EAS. She has confounded her critics – who have from the day she was appointed dismissed her as a light-weight - by keeping a cool head and single-handedly creating the momentum she needed to drive through her plans

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