Britain complains of EU's diplomatic 'competence creep'

23rd May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Britain drew a line Monday over how much power EU states should cede to Brussels as London accused the nascent European Union foreign service of encroaching on its diplomatic responsibilities abroad.

With Britain already in battle mode with Brussels over the EU budget, British minister for Europe David Lidington said London has sent out instructions to its embassies asking them to be "vigilant about any risk of competence creep" by EU delegations.

In Brussels for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, he accused EU missions "in particular parts of the world" of pushing for an "enhanced leadership role" or asserting that they have "the right to speak on behalf of member states."

"We push back very hard whenever we have evidence of that happening," he told reporters, without providing specific examples.

The European External Action Service, headed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, officially launched this year as part of a vast effort by the 27-nation bloc to speak on the world stage with one voice.

But Lidington complained that EEAS officials as well some EU states want the the service to have a greater role in consular matters that should remain firmly in the hands of national governments.

"There is a sort of pressure from some parts of the EU machine to push competence and we're very keen to make sure it's pushed back and clear lines are drawn," he said.

While the EEAS's role should be "defined and limited," he said it could play key roles in developing global partnerships with emerging powers like China, spurring change in the Arab world and working on conflict resolution.

But the British minister also complained that the EEAS had requested a 5.8 percent budget increase. Britain and like-minded EU states argue that Brussels should freeze spending at a time of austerity in national budgets.

"I think that they have got to get real as far as the budget is concerned. This 5.8 percent that they're asking for ... is somewhat ludicrous," Lidington said.

Ashton defended the increase, saying it was needed to cover the salaries of people transferred to her service and that she had ordered a 10 percent efficiency savings programme to cut costs.

"I already heard that David said it was somewhat ludicrous and I've told him about that and I'll see him again later," the British baroness told a news conference after the meeting of foreign ministers.

"I think it's very important that everyone understands that I recognise the significance of the economic situation in which we find ourselves," she said.

She argued that the EU's initiatives in the wake of revolutions in its southern Arab neighbourhood, including the opening of an office in the Libyan rebel city of Benghazi, "costs money."

"We're in this fine balance between trying to save money and cut costs where we can and also recognising the expectactions including from the British government, and rightly so, for us to perform well are there," Ashton said.

The chief EU diplomat said Lidington had not talked to her about any EU "competence creep."

"I don't know which particular aspect of competence creep he's worrying about but I'm sure he'll tell me at some point," she said.

© 2011 AFP

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