Members of the European Parliament are threatening a major confrontation with national governments in a bid to gain influence over the European Union's new diplomatic service.
Member states favour giving a separate status and a separate budget to the European External Action Service created by the Lisbon treaty and due to be set up next year to support the new high representative. That means it will not be wholly controlled by the European Commission nor by the Council of Ministers.
But leading MEPs want the new service to be part of the Commission, because that will entitle the Parliament to scrutinise the service's budget, granting it a degree of control. Warnings are emerging that if the Parliament does not get its way, it is ready to take the new Commission hostage by delaying the necessary vote on its appointment.
The dispute could derail progress just as member states are reaching consensus on many of the issues surrounding the new service, so that it can start work once ratification of the Lisbon treaty is completed.
The service, which will be responsible for implementing the EU's foreign policy and crisis management missions, will be made up of officials working on external relations in the Commission and the secretariat of the Council, as well as member states' diplomatic services. It could grow to more than 6,000 staff over time.
EU ambassadors have largely approved a paper drafted by the Swedish presidency of the EU that proposes incorporating all the country and thematic desks from the Commission's external relations department, as well the Commission's delegations abroad – which will become “Union delegations”. The Commission would retain responsibility for trade and enlargement, and decisions still have to be reached on which parts of development policy should come under the service.
Setting up the common service as a separate entity aims to combine the Commission's long-standing experience in managing policies such as development aid and economic co-operation with the Council's expertise on foreign and security policy. Member states are reluctant to locate it within the Commission because this would cede more control over security and defence policy than they are willing to relinquish.
Next Monday (19 October), members of the Parliament's constitutional affairs committee are set to approve a report drafted by German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok, calling for the service to be part of the Commission. Andrew Duff, a UK Liberal Democrat MEP who will draft Parliament's opinions on whether to approve the next Commission, said that if Barroso or the future high representative “fail to give us the guarantees we need on the External Action Service and the budget, we'll fail to appoint him”. The full plenary will vote on the issue on Thursday (22 October).
Under the Lisbon treaty rules, the high representative will also be a vice-president of the Commission, and MEPs can force the Commission president to change one of his team by threatening to reject the entire line-up. This was how MEPs forced José Manuel Barroso to drop Rocco Buttiglione from his Commission in 2004, after MEPs objected to his stance on homosexuality. The Parliament has been increasingly assertive recently. In September it forced the Council to provide more detail about its 2007 spending after threatening not to approve the Council's accounts.
MEPs also want to be closely consulted on the service while it is being planned. Currently, the Swedish presidency expects the high representative to present a plan within a month of the Lisbon treaty coming into force, so that the service can become operational before the end of 2010.