June 21, 2010 / 5:18 PM / 9 years ago

EU advances towards having own diplomatic service

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union moved a step closer to having its own diplomatic corps Monday, a step officials hope will give the EU greater weight and influence in international affairs.

After months of discussion, the European Parliament gave its support to a proposal by the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, for a service that is expected to have up to 7,000 staff, including 4,500 diplomats around the world.

The External Action Service (EAS) — as the diplomatic corps is officially known — was created via the Lisbon treaty, which came into force last year with the aim of streamlining the EU’s functioning and bolstering it on the world stage.

Ashton, who is the EU’s highest-ranking diplomat and will oversee the EAS, has been locked in discussions over the structure and shape of the service almost since the day she took office in December last year.

“We should not underestimate how important today’s decision is,” she said after parliament gave its political backing to her proposal, a decision that must be endorsed by a vote, which she hoped would take place in July.

“This means we can now move forward with the service and have it operational by the autumn. The European Union needs the External Action Service more than ever.”

The EU is the world’s largest trading bloc by value and brings together more than 500 million people in 27 countries. But when it comes to international affairs it doesn’t have the same degree of sway or influence.

Individual member states — particularly the large and powerful ones such as Britain, Germany, France and Italy — tend to pursue their own foreign policy agendas unless there is an issue that particularly lends itself to EU-wide consensus.

And smaller EU states also frequently have their own vested foreign affairs interests that are determined by geography, ethnicity or history.

But Ashton and top EU officials are hoping that by having a united diplomatic corps, the EU’s member states will rally behind a common foreign and security policy, with diplomats abroad responsible for presenting the EU to the world.

The first step — once parliament has voted in favor — will be to assign diplomats to around 130 missions, with most of them just occupying European Commission representative offices that are already up and running.

There is likely to be a battle, however, among the major EU states for who gets to assign ambassadors to the most important embassies, including Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi. Washington has already been filled.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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