The Parliament’s acceptance of the EEAS, the EU’s diplomatic corps, on July 8 was hailed as a ‘historic’ moment by the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Of course, such words are necessary on special occasions. Nevertheless, Ashton certainly has plenty of reason to be pleased.
The overwhelming support among MEPs (549 votes for, 78 against, 17 abstained) was a result many found surprising. Considering the Euro-skeptics in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group days before the vote called for at postponement of voting until after the summer recess, the EEAS decision seemed to be put off until autumn. The delay would have given skeptics ample opportunity to work in more national control over the new communitarian entity.
UK foreign secretary William Hague was undoubtedly instrumental in the outcome, endorsing a strengthened European foreign policy profile in his July 1 speech on the future British foreign policy. Hague called for Britain (and implicitly his conservative colleagues in the European Parliament) “to be highly active and activist in our approach to the European Union and the exercise of its collective weight in the world”.
The call the ECR to adapt a more positive stance to European foreign policy profile was heard. Austrian Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek was in no doubt that Hague’s influence was significant. “This is something I wouldn’t have expected from Mr. Hague, so I really appreciate that. I hope this augurs for a more pro-European stance, in the Council especially. Being in government together with the Lib Dems hopefully helps somewhat. That’s a positive sign….Without the ECR we wouldn’t have achieved it”, said Lunacek.
If there were any lingering doubts, it is by now obvious that the Tories have chosen a more pragmatic stance to the EU, compared to the attitude exhibited during the recent election. (See the blog “UK Conservatives take a pragmatic tack toward EU” below)
A powerful secretary-general will run the EEAS and will be assisted by two deputy secretary-generals. This is in accordance with Ashton’s wishes, as opposed to parliament who at first rejected the idea of civil servant-types running the shop, without being held political accountable to the EU’s only elected body.
In line with Parliaments wishes, the commission will maintain control of the €6 billion a year development and aid budget.
MEPs maintain the right to vote down the EEAS budget and to informally vet appointments for prominent foreign embassies. They will furthermore have access to some classified documents.
At least 60% of EEAS staff will be permanent EU officials rather than national diplomats. This will encourage an EEAS staff with a truly European outlook, hopefully escaping narrow national interests.
Regardless that the end result is a compromise, the speedy launch of the diplomatic service, and maintaining the right to select top EEAS appointments, is a feather in the cap for the much maligned foreign policy chief. Although the EEAS – due to it not gaining control of the much coveted development and aid budget - is perhaps not as powerful as Ashton wanted, the compromise represents a victory for the communitarian nature of the EEAS, and ultimately a victory for a coherent European foreign policy of which Ashton is the chief.