Rescue the EU’s External Action Service from the European Commission

The air in Brussels is thick with a storm over the European External Action Service, basically caused by the European Commission trying to break its word on peace-building.
Dan Smith
25 November 2010

If unchecked, the course the Commission is taking would deny EU High Representative Catherine Ashton the service committed to conflict prevention, security and stability she has spent this year trying to build.

So what on earth is going on? So far as I can piece it together, the basic story really is as simple as the Commission trying to break or at least circumvent the agreement that it signed up to over the shape of the European External Action Service (EEAS) in Madrid in June, confirmed by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in July.

At issue are the peacebuilding and crisis response policy officers in  the department for External Relations (DG Relex) in the Commission. So far none of them has been transferred as promised to the EAS. Unless the Commission is forced to back down, they will carry on being excluded. Hard security and counter-terror policy officers have transferred across and so have Common Foreign and Security Policy people – but not the ones from peacebuilding.

European Parliament in opposition

The European Parliament has reacted by hitting the button the Commission best understands – money. A letter has gone to Commission President Barroso from the Parliament, signed by the Parliamentary rapporteurs on the EAS – Elmar Brok, Roberto Gualtieri and Guy Verhofstadt – to explain to him a budgetary blocking move the Parliament has just voted through. Respectively, the three rapporteurs are the European People’s Party, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats. That’s the three biggest party groups in the EP and they are joined by the Greens to make a formidable cross-party opposition to the Commission’s antics.

It’s a strong letter. Dated 29 October, it outlines a part of the June agreement on which the Parliamentary representatives were particularly insistent – that High Representative Ashton should commit herself to “integrating current Commission (Instrument for Stability) planners into the EEAS, side by side with the Council’s (Common Security and Defence Policy) structures, both under her direct authority. The Commission supported this and it formed an integral part of the agreement found in Madrid on 21 June.”

The three MEPs then take the Commission to task for acting “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Madrid agreement” by putting in a budget amendment “that foresaw only a very limited transfer of IfS-Personnel to the EAS.”

In fact, they rather understate the issue at this point. It’s not just that very few staff from the peacebuilding team are proposed for transfer – three, so I gather – but that none of them are substantive policy posts.

The rapporteurs inform Barroso that the part of the EU budget that applies to the positions that ought to be transferred has been placed under a reservation by the plenary of the Parliament. That means the money will not be released until and unless those positions move from the Commission to the EAS in the way that was agreed.

What’s at stake?

If the Commission gets its way, it would mean the end of long-term peacebuilding by the EU – at least for a period of a few years. They want to take the well established, well informed staff of DG Relex currently working on peacebuilding, give them purely financial implementation tasks (yup, that seems to be the Commission’s plan), and put other staff with a strong background in hard security and counter-terror in charge of those areas of policy in which peacebuilding needs arise.

With a staff competent at something other than peacebuilding, peacebuilding needs will be neglected, misinterpreted and met with non-coherent initiatives – just like it used to be. At best, there will be a hiatus of a few years until a new professional cadre is trained up.

The real impact will be felt not in the abstractions of EU policy and capacity but in the lived reality of ordinary people in violence-wracked, crisis-torn countries, where the EU could be a source of judicious assistance if the EAS could hold the reservoir of knowledge on how best to provide it.

If the European Union is not about the rule of law and the resolution of conflict by arriving at agreements and standing by them, it is almost about nothing at all. The Commission’s hypocrisy is more damaging than it knows. Amazingly the Parliament and the Council of Ministers have found something they agree on – the Commission is breaking its word and trying to weasel its way out of a clear agreement.

EU governments are, of course, pre-occupied by Ireland this week and another crisis next. In the world of mass media headlines, this issue is too small and subtle to get a look in. But they surely don’t want to be led by the nose?

Fortunately, resolving this issue is simplicity itself. It entails three steps:

1. Commission President Barros0 writes back to the three Parliamentary rapporteurs and says, sure, the positions move as agreed, sorry for the misunderstanding.

2. Catherine Ashton is left free to do the complex job to which she was appointed a year ago, to construct an external Action service that can express the ideal of building peaceful relations between states and nations that lies at the heart of the EU’s foundation and trajectory.

3. The Commission reflects on the importance of keeping its word.



See the full post on Dan’s blog.

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