Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, has been forced to defend the performance of the European External Action Service (EEAS) in the face of criticism of her leadership from the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Sweden and seven other member states. Her response comes in a report on the first year of operations of the EU's diplomatic service which she submitted to the presidents of the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament at the end of December.
Ashton acknowledges problems in the division of roles between the EEAS, launched one year ago this week, and the European Commission. She concedes that there have been serious transitional and structural problems with the EU's 140 delegations abroad. She notes the need to improve policy formulation and delivery, but provides no details as to how she will do so.
All three problems had been identified in a confidential discussion paper signed by the 12 foreign ministers and sent to Ashton last month.
The foreign ministers – including Alain Juppé of France, Guido Westerwelle of Germany, Radoslaw Sikorski of Poland and Carl Bildt of Sweden – said they had “a major interest in a strong and efficient EEAS” and wanted “to help it develop its full potential”. William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, did not endorse the paper and its implicit criticism of Ashton.
Ashton's report skates over several of the concerns voiced by the ministers, including the haphazard preparation of the ministers' monthly meetings, which falls under her responsibility and is a source of frequent complaint from national diplomats.
The ministers had called on Ashton to “optimise the identification of political priorities” in preparing the meetings – diplomatic language for overloaded agendas subject to last-minute changes. Her report also offers no specifics on how to improve policy guidance. The ministers had said that the EEAS should produce more policy papers and circulate them early enough to be useful for the meetings.
Ashton's spokesman said that many of the points raised by the foreign ministers had already been addressed. He described the ministers' paper as a “useful contribution to the establishment of the EEAS” and said that Ashton did not view it as “a form of criticism”.
Both Ashton's report and the ministers' paper take aim at the Commission, whose attitude EEAS officials described as “not constructive”, even “hostile”. “It's a nightmare dealing with some of these people,” an official said. “There is a bureaucratic instinct to have internecine warfare.” The Commission routinely issues direct instructions to Commission staff working in EU delegations instead of routing them through the head of delegation.
Many delegations are predominantly staffed by Commission officials; more than 20 delegations have no senior EEAS officials other than the ambassador. Ashton's report says that there is “considerable concern” that ambassadors cannot delegate their financial responsibilities because current rules prevent Commission officials from dealing with the service's administrative funding. As a result, an “excessive burden of routine administrative management” falls on the heads of delegation, whose main role should be political. The ministers backed Ashton's proposal for delegations to have defence and security attachés.
But the foreign ministers made it clear that it is Ashton's responsibility to manage relations between the EEAS and the Commission. “Close co-operation between the EEAS and the Commission is essential for effective and coherent EU external action,” they wrote. “As vice-president of the Commission, the high representative [Ashton] plays a key role in co-ordinating the external relations aspects within the Commission.”
Their criticism suggests that the EEAS is isolated. “To avoid...a new structure disconnected from the member states, there should be a close interaction between the EEAS and the member states,” they wrote.
A diplomat said that the ministers' discussion paper had been prepared by Westerwelle's office. By the end of November, the foreign ministers of the Baltic states, Belgium, Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden had endorsed it, but it took another week before Juppé followed suit. The EEAS is managed by Pierre Vimont, a senior French diplomat who is the service's secretary-general; his two deputies are national diplomats from Germany and Poland.