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.
If unchecked, the course the Commission is taking would seriously damage the EAS’s potential peacebuilding role. With that, it 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 the stakes are high and it is time for Commission President Barroso to step in and stop it – and, if he does not so with alacrity, for the EU’s member states to step up and put some pressure on him to enforce the simple of principle of keeping your word.
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 EAS 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 DG Relex (External Relations) in the Commission. So far none of them has been transferred 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.
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 transfer 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 the way that was agreed.
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.
Take the well established, well informed, well set IfS staff of Relex 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.
And the other stake
There’s a secondary stake involved here too. Am I just naive and old-fashioned to say that something starts to stink when the Commission cannot do something as simple as stand by an agreement freely made?
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.
Uniting all against it
It is widely acknowledged that the Commission is currently getting this issue 100 per cent wrong. 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.
The word on the street is that Catherine Ashton agrees with the Council and the EP on this but cannot say so because of what she needs on other issues from the Commission. Her problem, in short, is a weak bargaining position. She needs somebody – or somebodies – or some governments – to come forward and back her up with the muscle that the Brussels system denies her.
They 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 EU governments surely don’t want to be led by the nose?
What is or could be the Commission’s motive in all this? Perhaps it’s to horse-trade on other issues (I have no idea which ones but it could be). Perhaps the aim is to try to keep peacebuilding policy in the Commission, as it has managed to do on some other key issues like trade and climate negotiation.
But it’s ridiculous: the member states won’t let the Commission have the lead on peacebuilding and keep responsibility for crisis planning. They have already decided that those functions will belong to the EAS. Likewise the Parliament. It’s a losing, potentially bruising, self-defeating battle by the Commission.
There is a rationale of sorts for the Commission’s line and it’s worth airing.
The basis of the argument is that it is agreed that the Commission will keep control of financial implementation while the EAS does policy and planning. Hold that thought and turn to the peacebuilding policy and planning people.
In general, the crisis response planning and peacebuilding officers in DG don’t handle the financial implementation of the actions that arise from the policies they work on. Financial implementation is largely “deconcentrated” out to the EU delegations in the countries where the actions are taken.
But some of the actions are politically sensitive and it’s thought that having responsibility for them might put the EU delegations at risk. So the control of those activities, including financial, is kept in Brussels. EU support for Tony Blair’s Middle East role is one example, as was EU support for UN mediator Ibrahim Gambari in Burma.
These activities amount to about 10 per cent spent on peacebuilding and they come under the control of the planners and crisis response officers.
You see where this is going: the fact that as crisis response planners the peacebuilding policy team in Relex has a marginal responsibility for financial implementation is being used to justify not transferring any of them to the EAS.
To the detriment of the EAS role in peacebuilding, thus to the EU’s role in it, and thus to peacebuilding in general.
Incredible? Yes, especially if I add that in the case of the team for election observation, the planners are going to the EAS while finance remains with the Commission. And CFSP planning staff are also headed for the EAS while finance stays with the Commission.
Ah, says, the committed bureaucratic obstructionist, but neither of those previously handled both policy and money. That’s the difference. And that, say I, is where we encounter the damage that the bureaucratic world can do to rational thinking and good policy.
To resolve the issue
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.