The EU foreign service is still a mystery

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Critics make it sound menacing: a secretive, cunning plot by hyper-federalists in the European Union to render member states powerless in foreign affairs and subjugate them to a single authority in Brussels.

Supporters are equally passionate about what they believe is a panacea for their long-held frustration that the EU punches below its weight in the world: a tool that will finally allow the bloc to wield its due clout and hold its own against big powers like the United States and China.

The name of this project, the “European External Action Service” (EEAS), sounds neither insidious nor particularly inspiring, which may be appropriate, since it’s hardly clear yet how an EU diplomatic service will actually function. The only certainty is that it will come into being, once the Lisbon Treaty is finally ratified by the sole remaining holdout, the Czech Republic — a ratification that is now in sight.

With all the heated discussion between those who want to ensure they have mechanisms to control the new body and those who say it shouldn't exist, it is interesting to remember that the EEAS has not been truly contentious before now, despite being around as a concept for some eight years. It was first envisioned in the constitutional treaty, which failed to pass in 2005, and included after that in the Lisbon Treaty, without much debate. Among the most highly anticipated reforms that will take place under Lisbon are the appointment of an EU president, who will sit for two and a half years rather than the current six-month rotation, and an EU “foreign minister,” with the official title “high representative for foreign affairs and security policy/vice president of the European Commission.” The latter will run the EEAS.

But while the creation of an EU foreign service is now a foregone conclusion, the lack of specificity on the service’s scope, substance, staffing, supervision and so much more has led to contention. It’s expected that responsibility for humanitarian aid, security policy and crisis management would be vested in the EEAS along with the primary responsibility of managing foreign relations. But questions remain on the service’s most basic organization, such as where it would fall between the executive arm of the commission (the EU’s executive branch) and the heads of government who make up the council, who would allocate funding and who would be drafted to serve as diplomats. The commission already has offices in about 130 locations throughout the world. Those would be renamed as “EU” offices, but many critics refuse to allow them the designation of “embassy” or their heads as “ambassador.”

EU heads of state had hoped to openly discuss details of the service and candidates for the posts of president and high representative by their fall summit, which starts Thursday in Brussels. But since the Czechs are still holding out on Lisbon, the Swedish presidency has had to work on an outline for implementation of the EEAS largely under the radar, so as not to provoke further backlash from the Czech president and other eurosceptics.

Of course, now the anti-EU camp can allege that the preparations are taking place “in secret.”

On Thursday, heads of state were to receive a Swedish-prepared planning document on EEAS. “[I]t is of key importance that preparatory work should continue at full speed within the current format in the run up to the entry into force of the Treaty,” a draft of the document says.

Last week, in heated parliamentary debate on the EEAS, British Conservative Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Ashley Fox took the legislature to task for even considering a report on the EEAS prepared by German Christian Democratic MEP Elmar Brok, because such discussion "pre-empts the ratification of Lisbon."

Brok’s report, which was approved, emphasizes that parliament must be consulted and recommends that the EEAS budget be placed within the commission's budget and administration, which would give parliament some oversight. It stipulates that “political agreement be reached with Parliament on all issues at an early stage in order to avoid valuable time being wasted on political controversies about the form to be taken by the EEAS” but it concludes optimistically that upcoming Lisbon changes, including the EEAS, can help Europe become a “global player, not just global payer.”

Fox went on to speak against setting up the EEAS saying it is not a good use of funds and criticizing a recommendation in the Brok report for a special training operation for staffers of the new body. “A European diplomatic college is a waste of money and would become another burden on the taxpayer,” Fox argued. He insisted that any policy carried out by the corps would result from the agreement of heads of state in the Council, so it would merely represent another level of bureaucracy.

Fox’s fellow British MEP Andrew Brons, a member of the controversial British National Party, was considerably more alarmist. “It’s clear that this service is intended — not in the short term but in the long term — to take over and replace diplomatic representation of member states,” Brons said, going so far as to suggest Brussels might try to swallow “even the vetoes of the United Kingdom and France (as permanent members) on the United Nations Security Council.”

But the Swedish presidency, in the person of European Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstroem, proclaimed that the EEAS is essential “so that European foreign policy can really become visible around the world.” Malmstrom defended the work of the Swedish presidency in laying out a blueprint for the service even without a Lisbon go-ahead, saying these were “just ideas” that the high representative can consider when he or she is chosen, probably in November.

External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner — who actually can say with certainty that her job will be subsumed by the new position of high representative — sounded a pleading note to skeptics. Creation of the EEAS, she said, “offers the EU the chance to indeed achieve what we have long hoped for: to have a common voice in the world, to strengthen the EU’s influence in the world.”