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Turf battle

October 21, 2009

Everyone agrees that the EU needs a powerful diplomatic corps to pull its global weight. But when it comes to creating the new service old turf battles could undermine a debate over the role of the new body.

European parliament in Strasbourg
The European Parliament wants a say over the new diplomatic serviceImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The goal is ambitious. At the EU's next summit at the end of the month the Swedish EU presidency wants to have an agreed outline on how the union's new diplomatic corps, the so called External Action Service, would be set up and financed. While there is broad consensus among the various European institutions that the EU needs to beef up and streamline its global diplomatic presence, there are very different views on who should control and fund the new entity.

The Lisbon Treaty, which calls for the creation of the External Action Service, is not much help in solving the impasse. It is rather vague on specifics of the new body and only stipulates that the foreign ministers make a suggestion which needs to be approved by the member states and the EU Commission. The European Parliament, according to the treaty, needs to be consulted, but it's approval is not required.

And this is exactly where the power struggle among EU institutions starts, because the European Parliament doesn't just want to be consulted, but instead demands oversight rights over the new diplomatic service. It does have a point, says Eva Gross, a senior research fellow for European foreign and security policy at Brussel's Vrije Universiteit: "It's one policy area where to date it has not had much control, but it's an issue that of course concerns European citizens, so there has been a debate over parliamentary accountability and who else to play this role than the European Parliament."

Undefined tasks

In order to have the oversight role it wants, the EU parliament in a proposal drafted by the German Member of the European Parliament Elmar Brok states that the new body should be connected and funded by the EU Commission. By establishing the service as part of the EU Commission, parliamentarians would gain control over the new diplomatic corps. To support their position, EU parliamentarians have already threatened to refuse to confirm the EU's new foreign minister unless their demands are heard.

Flags of the European Union 27 countries
EU member states are reluctant to cede powers to European institutionsImage: AP

EU member states, which traditionally have been reluctant to hand over authority on foreign and security matters to the Commission, prefer the creation of a body separate from the Commission. This would mean the EU member states would fund and have the ultimate say over the new service.

Who should gain control over the External Action Service depends on what the concrete tasks of the new organisation should be, says Gross: "I think there is a good argument to be made if you talk about political weight for the council to play a strong role. On the other hand if you talk about structural foreign policy which means that the budget and long-term policies are important then of course you need a significant role for the Commission as well."

Until now, however, the future role of the new diplomatic service hasn't been discussed properly, says Franziska Brantner, a German member of the Greens in the European Parliament. "I think we need this debate and unfortunately the European Parliament so far has not been willing to negotiate on the objectives, but only on the structure and I think we urgently need to discuss the objectives."

Theoretical discussion

"A lot of these debates over who pays for it and who owns it are a little premature," says Gross. "In some ways these debates remain theoretical until we actually get the green light and the Lisbon Treaty has been ratified."

While the preliminary plan calls for the new service to merge the EU Commission's foreign policy staff with that of the European Council and of the member states, a force which could number up to 6,000, it is unclear whether its portfolio will include development and defense and how effective this merger will be in reality.

"One of the challenges the treaty will face is whether or not member states will subsume the diplomatic services under the European External Action Service and that's a debate that is also still outstanding beyond the council-commission divide," says Gross. "It will be interesting to see whether member states will continue to run parallel embassies and parallel political processes or whether they will be more willing and ready to subsume or align their positions with the EU and the external action service."

Brantner worries that unless the tasks and the role of the new body are clearly defined, it will be hard to convince Europeans of the necessity of the service. "The new External Action Service has to bring added value so that it really has legitimacy to be funded," she says. "For me added value means that it really makes EU external action more comprehensive, more coherent and more effective. If the service that we create does not meet these objectives I think it wouldn't be worthwhile creating it."

Foreign office in Berlin
Will German diplomats become part of the new EU diplomatic service?Image: picture-alliance / dpa

Despite a slew of unresolved questions and time pressure, Gross is hopeful that the current EU power struggle in the end will lead to a good result. "I am fairly confident that we get to that just because there is such a strong consensus in favor of a more common diplomatic presence."

Brantner still sees the risk that if the new body is set up too hastily, the External Action Service could become an overly bureaucratic institution bogged down by internal turf battles. "So I think to call for a review clause in three years would be something very important to get into the final document so that even if we miss something now we have a second chance to make it better in a few year's time."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge