The European Union appears on the brink of reversing a controversial plan to scrap its 12 special representatives to places ranging from the South Caucasus, Moldova, and Central Asia to Afghanistan and the Great Lakes of Africa, officials in Brussels say.
EU ambassadors met today for the third time this month to decide the envoys' futures. Diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity say broad agreement is emerging among the 27 member states that the mandates of all 12 will be extended by at least six months and their long-term fates left open, pending later debate.
If confirmed by EU foreign ministers at their next meeting in Brussels on July 26, the decision would mean a reprieve for the bloc's South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby, the Moldovan special representative Kalman Miszei, and their colleagues in Macedonia and the Middle East. According to diplomats four were singled out in May by the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to lose their jobs in short order.
EU diplomats say Ashton wanted to settle the issue by bureaucratic fiat but that news reports of her plans provided the affected countries and EU members who opposed the move an opportunity to force it onto the broader political agenda. The diplomats say Ashton had secured the backing of larger states but had hoped to avoid a wider debate.
Ashton's spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, told RFE/RL that the EU is currently looking into ways to integrate the special representatives into the European External Action Service (EEAS), the bloc's new unified diplomatic arm, which was established by the Lisbon Treaty and headed by Ashton. The EEAS is expected to be operational on January 1.
Kocijancic said the debate within the EU continues, adding that there is no decision yet. Ashton's aim, her spokeswoman said, is to assure that the EU has "proper representation" in partner countries.
Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Italy have been among the countries pushing strongly for an extension of the mandates of all 12 EU special envoys without prejudice to their eventual fate.
Reports that the envoys were about to be recalled and replaced by lower-level officials located in Brussels caused an outcry in Georgia and Moldova. EU diplomats, too, noted privately that the moves would amount to downgrading the affected countries and regions -- as well as their conflicts -- on the EU list of priorities. It would also send an encouraging signal to rival powers.
Ashton's spokeswoman rejected suggestions that the changes suggested by the EU's top diplomat entail the dilution of the bloc's presence anywhere in the world.
"The EU wants its foreign policy to be more active and more effective in the world," Kocijancic said. The heads of EU representations in partner countries will be strengthened under the EEAS.
Strategic Question Marks
Diplomats say during the ambassadorial debates held behind closed doors in Brussels on July 1 and 12, Ashton and her right-hand man, the British diplomat Robert Cooper, argued that in the future the EU should nominate special representatives only in three specific cases: for events or crises where the EU has no representation on the ground; to regions which need strategic attention; or for exceptional countries or crises, such as in Burma.
Ashton and Cooper, however, did not directly address the strategic implications of retracting existing envoys, diplomats say. Officials say Ashton repeatedly alluded to the fact that some of the existing envoys -- without naming any -- pose problems with their independent views. This is understood to reflect the concerns of some of the larger member states which feel envoys like Semneby complicate their relations with partners such as Russia.
Ashton also opposes suggestions that the EU could upgrade some of the envoys by replacing them with political heavyweights hand-picked from the ranks of former foreign ministers.
Ashton has suggested the French diplomat Pierre Morel, the EU's special envoy to Central Asia as well as the Georgian-Russian Geneva talks, be retained in his present duties, operating out of Brussels. Conflict resolution in the South Caucasus is formally part of Semneby's job description.
Fallout For Ashton?
Ashton's plans are part of a larger drive to bring all of the EU's diplomatic corps under the control of the EEAS.
But member states critical of the plans have pointed out that EU special representatives are appointed by the member states and can thus only be removed by the member states. Also, some capitals point out, the envoys whose positions will not disappear, will not join the EEAS but will continue to report directly to member-state ambassadors in Brussels. Consequently, officials say there has been strong pressure to exclude Ashton and her representatives from the debates on the future of the special representatives.
Ashton has been publicly criticized in a number of member states for being susceptible to pressure from Berlin and Paris, particularly in staffing decisions. The top civil servant in the EEAS will come from France, his deputies in turn from Germany and Poland. France and Germany are also said to have carved up between themselves some of the most lucrative EU ambassadorial positions outside the bloc.
By Ahto Lobjakas. Published on 13 July 2010
Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of S & D.