Ashton and Van Rompuy will have a tough start

 

The time for celebration is over. Now Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton must start preparing for their new jobs.

Catherine Ashton has a delicate balancing act to perform. The High Representative should take up her new responsibilities on 1 December, according to the Lisbon Treaty. But Ashton is facing European Parliament hearings before she is confirmed as Vice-President of the Commission.

She cannot wait for the vote. A number of urgent dossiers are already piling up on her new desk. One of them is the European External Action Service, EEAS.

When EU governments agreed guidelines for the EEAS, they left a number of controversial questions unanswered. Catherine Ashton must move quickly to gain control.

Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton face big challenges. Photo Gunnar Seijbold/Government Offices

The relationship between foreign and development policy is one such issue. During the European Development Days in October, many speakers were eager not to subordinate EU development aid programmes to short-term foreign policy priorities. Poverty reduction should remain the aim for EU financial assistance and the Commissioner for Development should be in control over programming (over the money, to put it more frankly). This view is shared by many Ministers for Development.

However, the guidelines for the EEAS state that the geographical desks should `play a leading role in the strategic decision-making´ about programming and implementation. Proposals to the College of Commissioners will be prepared jointly by the High Representative and the Commissioner for Development.

How this should work in practice must be decided before the end of the year, according to the guidelines. Catherine Ashton must move quickly to find a solution to the internal conflicts that remain. The European Parliament and many others will closely monitor the organizational structure for development programmes in the new Commission. Similar issues arise for EU Neighbourhood Policy programs.

Before April 2010, Catherine Ashton must submit her proposal for a Council decision on the organisation and functioning of the EEAS. Other difficult issues include the role of special representatives, and of EU delegations around the world. This goes especially for EU Delegations at the UN and other multilateral institutions.

At the same time, Ashton must quickly become a key player in foreign policy. Her first statement on Iran, for example, will be scrutinized in detail. To have any chance of success, she must delegate a number of tasks related to organization without losing overall control.

Hopefully, she will still have time to use the Lisbon Treaty to advance EU policy on horizontal issues such as human rights, conflict prevention, and green diplomacy. It is a tall order for someone with little experience in foreign and security policy, but Ashton should have the benefit of the doubt.

Herman Van Rompuy has a somewhat easier task. The Swedish Presidency will chair meetings until the end of the year, and Van Rompuy will be able to ease the transition of power in Belgium before taking up his new post.

However, the new President of the European Council must quickly agree a division of tasks with the upcoming Spanish Presidency. That might not be so easy. Zapatero is likely to fight for a strong Spanish role for example in the preparation of a post-Lisbon strategy.

Herman Van Rompuy must, like Ashton, devote much energy to the new organizational structure. What will be the relation between the President and the rest of the Council Secretariat, led by Pierre de Boissieu? Who will, in practice, prepare the work program of the Council and negotiate with the rotating Presidencies? My bet is on Pierre de Boissieu.

Many have asked whether Ashton and Van Rompuy were really the best two candidates Europe could muster. That is a good question.

But now, the choice has been made. Europe needs leaders who work well together and who make the European Union more than the sum of its individual parts. Ashton, Barroso and Van Rompuy deserve a fair chance.

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