BRUSSELS -- Formally, the European Union is shedding its envoys to the South Caucasus and Moldova as part of the streamlining of its diplomatic machinery under the Lisbon Treaty.
The issue is not on the agenda of the EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on June 14, where it is subsumed under the general problem of setting up the European External Action Service (EEAS), an embryonic EU diplomatic corps. The EEAS is set to integrate most -- though not all -- of the bloc's foreign policy representation under one roof in Brussels.
The ministers will also adopt a declaration on the South Caucasus -- without a debate, however, and without a document making any mention of the plan to scrap the EU special envoy for the region.
Whereas the passing of the EU's special representative to the Middle Eastern peace process will go largely unlamented among member states, and the merging of the various EU representatives in Kabul has been welcomed by most, the plans by Catherine Ashton, the EU's top foreign policy officials, with respect to the South Caucasus and Moldova have caused concerns.
Both are home to long-standing conflict flashpoints close to the EU's own borders where the bloc finds itself in contention for influence with Russia. Any downgrading of the EU's involvement in either part of the world would inevitably send powerful messages to both local capitals -- most of which seek closer integration with the West -- as well as Moscow.
Last week, a number of foreign ministers, mostly from Eastern Europe, wrote to Ashton to protest against the dropping of the envoys to the South Caucasus. The issue came up at the joint regular breakfast of Nordic and Baltic ministers ahead of the EU meeting this morning.
But officials privately concede the fightback appears doomed. The EEAS represents far too great a prize in the eyes of the member states. At the end of the day, none appears prepared to risk reopening negotiations on its structure after a hard-fought consensus was reached in late spring. The goal now is to secure the green light from the European Parliament. This is likely to take at least until July, with the parliament intent on using its new Lisbon-derived leverage to enhance its own powers.
As a result, the EEAS is not expected to be fully functional before January 1, 2011. With Ashton reportedly keen on abolishing the special representatives for the South Caucasus and Moldova -- Peter Semneby and Kalman Miszei, respectively -- at the end of their terms on August 31, a hiatus thus beckons in EU involvement with both.
Ashton is said even to oppose any temporary extension of the envoys' mandates to bridge the time gap.
But in the eyes of the concerned EU member states, this would just be the tip of the iceberg. Darker worries are visible under the surface -- above all, that the centralization of diplomatic responsibility in Brussels will have a contrary effect to that ostensibly sought by Ashton, especially in the South Caucasus. Semneby spends most of his time in the region, serving as a highly visible symbol of the EU's commitment to the region, an important conduit for information, and a respected contact point for local governments.
His impending replacement with one or more lower-ranked bureaucrats in Brussels would jeopardize all of these functions -- and disturb the precarious balance which now exists in the region, where the EU acts as a kind of counterweight to Russia.
There are also fears that the centralization of EU diplomatic functions would remove what few teeth the bloc's foreign policy has left. The EEAS will not be authorized to make policy -- each of the EU's 27 member states retains the right of veto -- but merely to implement it.
Diplomats say Ashton has complained repeatedly that some among the existing envoys act too independently, above all issuing statements not sufficiently coordinated with Brussels. The letter to EU foreign ministers on May 21 where the EU's top diplomat first floated her intention to abolish some envoys notes that some of the special representatives are "exceptional individuals" -- and goes on to suggest only some of them could be found a place within the EEAS.
The full integration of the EU's diplomatic outreach into the EEAS would bring it under the tighter control of the larger member states. Most of its top figures would hail from Paris, Berlin, and London.
Diplomats note that with the departure of Semneby -- who is Swedish -- the top EU figure in the region will be Pierre Morel, charged with overseeing the Geneva talks between Georgia and Russia. Morel is considered a very capable diplomat -- he also doubles as the EU's Brussels-based Central Asian envoy. But he is also French, leading some to worry he may take a more accommodating stance toward Russia. Morel is flanked by the head of the EU's monitoring mission to Georgia, currently a German diplomat. Germany is also seen as pro-Moscow.
Ashton's maneuvering may also be linked to Germany's recent high-profile rapprochement with Russia
, which saw Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Dmitry Medvedev adopt a joint memorandum on June 5 proposing the creation of an EU-Russia "political and security committee" tasked with crisis resolution. Making no mention of Georgia -- where Moscow says there are no "frozen conflicts" left after the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- the document's focus is on Moldova.
The German-Russian memorandum has caused consternation in other EU capitals, which would normally have expected to be consulted beforehand.
There may also be a link between the EU's impending reconfiguring of its eastern policy and a possible U.S. initiative -- suggested privately by diplomats at NATO -- to resuscitate talks with Moscow on a successor to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.