BRUSSELS -- Almost a year in the making, the European Union's unified diplomatic service is finally about to get off the ground.
The European Parliament is set to put its final seal of approval on the process in two votes in Strasbourg on October 20, clearing the way for the European External Action Service (EEAS) to formally start recruiting top bureaucrats for its Brussels-based headquarters.
Negotiations in recent weeks had turned increasingly acrimonious, with the parliament demanding more say in the EEAS than most member states were willing to concede.
But signaling a breakthrough, no fewer than three EU commissioners were present at a plenary debate on October 19 in Strasbourg, all but guaranteeing a positive vote on the last two remaining pieces of legislation needed to get the EEAS up and running by the end of the year.
Most senior among them was Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign policy and the -- as yet -- designated head of the EEAS.
A Service For Citizens
In a speech on October 19, Ashton noted that "every citizen of the European Union is touched by what we do on foreign policy, trade, development, in counterterrorism. And this is, above all, a service which I believe is for them."
The tone of Ashton's announcement was reflective of a compromise reached behind closed doors, as though the October 20 vote was a mere formality.
The EEAS will not make policy. It will represent to the world the joint position of the 27 member states with each of them retaining the right to veto.
But diplomats from smaller and newer member states fear that as a powerful information-gathering and agenda-setting tool in its own right, the EEAS will play into the hands of larger member states whose diplomats are set to dominate its top flights.
Partly reflecting these concerns, the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee had demanded that Ashton accept quotas for new member state diplomats -- something which appeared to be anathema for both the chief of the new service and a majority of the member states.
States Feel Handicapped
EU Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, who is responsible for administrative matters under EU treaties, told the plenary, "The compromise also includes provisions which express a strong commitment on reaching geographical and gender balance in the European External Action Service. The situation will be reviewed in 2013."
New member state representatives got just four of a batch of nearly 30 top EU ambassadorial appointments unveiled in September. Poland is virtually assured the position of one of Ashton's three deputies, but many diplomats from the bloc's eastern member states feel handicapped by tough requirements relating to career lengths set for prospective EU diplomats.
The parliament also appears to have backed down on an earlier demand to win oversight over all the EEAS budget, including parts of it to do with defense matters -- in which member states retain full sovereignty. The parliament, on the other hand, has the final say on the EU budget -- including, at least theoretically, that of the EEAS as an EU institution.
The tensions between the EU's community institutions and what member states take to be their prerogatives reflect the degree to which the EU's foreign policy-making remains a work in progress.
Ashton herself has yet to fully settle into the EU's new post-Lisbon Treaty chain of command. Ashton takes her orders from the EU foreign ministers, but also sets the agenda of the regular ambassadors' meetings in Brussels.
She also reports to EU summits and Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, who chairs them. The agenda of the summits, in turn, is set by van Rompuy and the rotating EU presidency, currently Belgium.