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EU's Foreign Policy Arm Taking Shape, But Still Mired In Bureaucracy

Catherine Ashton: '4 hats'
Catherine Ashton: '4 hats'
The birth pains of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the long-awaited single foreign policy arm of the EU, may be over. Well, maybe.

"We have a political agreement, but not yet a final agreement," said a senior EU diplomat after a grueling round of talks in Madrid on June 20 involving the European Commission, the European Parliament, the EU's rotating Spanish presidency, and the EEAS itself in the person of Catherine Ashton, its anointed head. Although one could argue Ashton was there to represent the 27 EU member states. But then so was the Spanish presidency.

In any case, a deal was done which -- if bits of it are approved by the European Parliament in its July plenary, and other bits in September -- could see the EEAS finally up and running by January 1, 2011.

But there is more here than meets the eye. The Madrid deal marks a truce in the inter-institutional battle for control over the EEAS which has been raging ever since the Lisbon Treaty, which created it, came into force last November.

To be sure, the objects of this struggle are staff positions, "organograms," budgets, chains of command -- not what to do about, say, Russia, Ukraine, or Georgia.

The EEAS will implement the decisions of the monthly EU foreign ministers' meetings. Earlier this month, for example, the ministers expressed "serious concerns" at the situation in Kyrgyzstan and promised humanitarian aid, worried over the situation in Gaza, and agreed new sanctions against Iran. As of next January, the putting into effect of all of this will become more streamlined -- whatever that may mean.

One thing it most emphatically doesn't mean is that things will become simpler. One official today described Ashton with all her institutionally cross-cutting responsibilities -- high representative for foreign policy, European Commission vice president, soon running the autonomous EEAS -- as potentially "quadruple-hatted."

Day-to-day policy-implementation will be the task of the EEAS. Unless the object of the policy is in Africa or the Caribbean, in which case the EEAS draws up positions while the Commission will exercise "responsibility" in the person of Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs. The same applies to enlargement and the EU neighborhood, where commissioner Stefan Fuele will exercise "responsibility" from outside the EEAS. On military matters, Ashton's direct authority cuts out most intermediate levels in the chain of command.

The EEAS budget is controlled by the member states, except those parts disbursed by the European Commission, which are ultimately controlled by the European Parliament.

In terms of political accountability, there are the member states, and the European Commission. And then there is the European Parliament, to which the "high representative" part of Ashton is not answerable, but the commission vice-president part (partly) is.

Should she be away from Brussels, commissioners Fuele and/or Piebalgs will face the parliament on matters wholly or predominantly community-policy-related (examples given today were Ukraine and Georgia). If not, the stand-in will be the foreign minister of the rotating presidency (just the sort of thing the Lisbon Treaty was supposed to do away with).

"The system has, from the start, not been very easy to understand," to quote one of the senior EU diplomats from today's briefing.

-- Ahto Lobjakas

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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