Foreign Secretary David Miliband appeared before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee this afternoon to discuss developments in the EU, ahead of the formal six-monthly European Council meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday this week.
Although Foreign Ministers usually attend these meetings, the Lisbon Treaty states that it should only be EU heads of state. The Swedish EU Presidency, on the advice of the legal service for the Council, according to Miliband, had decided that Foreign Ministers will not be invited, which has put some noses out of joint. Thanks to Lisbon, EU Foreign Ministers are no longer welcome but instead EU Foreign Minister Cathy Ashton gets a seat.
However, Miliband added that the Treaty still allows for heads of state to bring along a minister when the agenda requires it, and that EU leaders will have a discussion over dinner about "whether the Treaty means what it says", with regards to whether or not foreign ministers may be allowed to attend these meetings in future. What a bizarre thing to say - what do we do if they find the Treaty does not "mean what it says"? That goes down as another admission from the Government that the text is indeed highly ambiguous and that, as we argued, MPs were effectively signing a blank cheque when they agreed it.
Miliband also revealed that, although the final outline and recruitment policy of the new European External Action Service, EEAS, is still to be decided (another of Lisbon's 'unanswered questions), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office anticipates that it will be contributing 18-25 staff to the new EU institution.
You may remember back in October, a document from the Swedish EU Presidency on the outline of the EEAS. This stated that staff from Member States should represent at least one third of staff at the senior level, including diplomatics in delegations - with people keen to keep in mind a geographic balance for those working in the new institution. The rest of the staff would be taken from the Commission and the General Secretariat of the Council.
Since it has been suggested that the size of the EEAS could reach anything between 6,000 and 8,000, it is not quite clear how those two ideas tally. Unless the UK will be sending a bloc of staff way below the number which other member states are sending, it may turn out that long-time eurocrats (the same ones striking for a payrise next week) may make up the bulk of the staff in the EEAS after all.
There were also some Select Committee questions regarding the appointment of Cathy Ashton, and the role of the new EU Foreign Minister, specifically in relation to the EEAS. One MP pointed out that it was a rather strange message to send, for Ashton to have her office in the Commission building, when the nature of the job was supposed to be 'intergovernmental', i.e. to represent the foreign policy of all 27 member states.
Asked this very question recently, Ashton said she was staying in her office in the Commission simply because she knows where the coffee is. Hmm.
Conservative MP for Wells David Heathcoat-Amory pointed out that as a sui generis institution, without precedent, it is extremely unclear where the lines of responsibility for the EEAS are, and it sits in some kind of limbo-like "euro-space" between the Council and Commission.
Indeed. The problem with this brand new institution, which the EU has made clear will become a seperate institution in its own right, with its own budget (£45 billion over 3 years, according to Javier Solana), is that for the very first time it is an institution which seems to straddle both the Commission and the Council - blurring the lines between the intergovernmental and the supranational if you like. In this sense it will be a real "EU foreign office" - with EU diplomats for the first time, instead of mere European Commission 'delegates' and representatives abroad. They will supposedly speak on behalf of the EU as a whole, as opposed to representing just the Commission.
How will that work in practice? It seems Miliband and even Ashton aren't too sure about that. We left the Select Committee hearing none the wiser.