As a rule in the European Union,the grandeur of somebody’s office is inversely related to the sexiness of their work. This is especially true in foreign policy. In Brussels the dingy Justus Lipsius building hosts officials who negotiate with Iran and send peacekeepers to the Balkans. This is the base of the Council of the European Union,a small Brussels secretariat for the EU’s 27 national governments. It is a maze of low-ceilinged corridors and linoleum floors,in shades of magenta,brown and nicotine yellow. Without its impressively fortified filing cabinets (for holding sexily secret files),it might be a railways ministry.
Across the street is the Berlaymont,a building of sweeping glass-and-steel curves that houses the European Commission,the EU’s standing bureaucracy. Commissioners wield soft power: their thousands of staff spend billions on such things as development aid for Africa (and farm subsidies at home). Commissioners forge trade deals with the outside world,and scrutinise countries wanting to join the EU. This is important stuff,but it is not Bismarckian realpolitik. Commissioners need willing partners with audited accounts: their world is one of action plans,projects and contracts. In the acidic judgment of one national bureaucrat,commission officials are “wonderful” at managing programmes,but “lack expertise in what we would call diplomacy”. Commissioners’ offices are like a five-star IKEA design: all pale wood floors,tasteful sofas and modern art.
The biggest and grandest building is the European Parliament,where MEPs talk a lot about foreign policy but have little clout. Their complex is pharaonic. The parliament’s president has no foreign-policy role,yet boasts four diplomatic advisers in his office (to go with his press officers,protocol officers,policy advisers,speechwriters,secretaries and personal usher).
Until this month the various EU institutions all competed over foreign policy. In the council building sat Javier Solana,a foreign-policy high representative with little money but a lot of political access. In the commission was Benita Ferrero-Waldner,the external-relations commissioner with a big budget but scant global weight. On December 1st the Lisbon treaty combined the two jobs,creating a new high representative who is also a commission vice-president,backed by a diplomatic corps or external-action service (EAS) drawn from the council,commission and national foreign ministries.
To general surprise,the job went to Catherine Ashton,a British former minister with only a year’s EU experience as trade commissioner. Most governments are reserving judgment on Lady Ashton’s lack of diplomatic experience. She is clever and charming,and colleagues want her to succeed. Yet even this early on,political dangers lurk. Many capitals are grumbling that the Brussels establishment wants to hijack the new foreign-policy machinery (and Lady Ashton with it). Some big governments,including Germany’s,accuse eurocrats of wanting to keep national diplomats out of senior EAS jobs. And both big and small countries say that José Manuel Barroso,the commission’s president,is trying to pull the autonomous EAS back into his empire. They express special unhappiness at Mr Barroso’s decision to take “neighbourhood” policy-ie,foreign policy in the EU’s backyard-out of Lady Ashton’s portfolio and give it to his proposed enlargement commissioner,a Czech named Stefan Fule.
Some senior diplomats also claim that MEPs are trying to use their budgetary oversight of the EAS to grab new powers. The parliament’s demands range from the highly ambitious (such as the right to vet new ambassadors who will head the biggest EU delegations) to the self-parodic (a demand that EU delegations must employ staff purely to look after MEPs on their foreign junkets). Finally,national diplomats say they were alarmed when Lady Ashton chose to retain her commissioner’s office at the Berlaymont,and to build her new private office around her former trade team: sending a signal,it is widely felt,that she sees herself as a commissioner first and foremost.
How justified are these complaints? It is too soon to start counting the number of national diplomats at the EAS,says one insider: no serious work has been done on staffing. Senior commission sources insist that Mr Barroso took day-to-day neighbourhood policy away from Lady Ashton to ease her workload,and help her succeed in an almost impossible job. They also note that desk officers for neighbourhood countries will work in the EAS,which will be under Lady Ashton’s authority,even if it receives “political instructions” from Mr Fule. In the event of a clash between Mr Fule and Lady Ashton,Mr Barroso would have the final say,they add. Well precisely,retorts a national diplomat: Mr Barroso is playing “divide and rule”.
Playing office politics
All sides agree on the symbolic importance of one issue: Lady Ashton’s choice of a Berlaymont office,and her decision to keep her former trade team close to her. One ally approves of her choice,calling it pragmatic. If she had moved to the council and set up a new private office,he asks “what would she have gained?” She would have pleased some national capitals but created
“immense suspicions” among other commissioners and maybe with Mr Barroso to boot.
Yet a second ally is warier: Lady Ashton “has work to do” to dispel the idea that she has been “captured” by the commission,he suggests. It may sound parochial,but choosing a new office-perhaps in neither the shabby Justus Lipsius nor the grand Berlaymont-could send a signal that EU types would instantly understand.
Lady Ashton has a perilously big job: “the sexiest innovation of the Lisbon treaty,” says one senior official. She must demonstrate her autonomy soon if she is to thrive.