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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

We are where we are

The phrase "we are where we are" was oft repeated in this evening’s debate in the House of Commons – but sadly for many MPs it seems that ‘where we are’ was anywhere other than the Green benches judging by the numbers in attendance.

While a Hansard transcript is not yet available to link to for those interested in the debate – there are a few worthwhile interventions to take note of.

NB: This was a debate to approve a motion on the EU’s External Action Service – allowing the Government to give its official approval to the launch of the EEAS at the next meeting of EU leaders.

David Lidington made clear that EU Foreign Minister Cathy Ashton and the EEAS may only represent an EU common position where it has been agreed by unanimity among member states ahead of time. Of course while that may work in practice, EU embassies will likely be offering positions before they become official in an informal manner in third countries.

The Europe Minister also said (in what we suspect is a dig at the European Parliament over their refusal to agree to the EEAS blueprint before they got everything they wanted) that those who argued that Lisbon would be an end to the institutional turf wars “were plainly wrong”. He also said that member states had resisted the proposals of the EP that it be able to hold official ‘confirmation’ hearings of the heads of EU delegations, and to bring the entire service under the control of the Commission (and by extension the European Parliament).

Mr Lidington also said that the Government accepted that, despite promises of budget neutrality for the service, the start-up costs and the burden of bringing over national secondees to Brussels would require start-up funding – of which he estimated the UK’s share would be approx £1.1 million (before any reduction for the rebate).

Interestingly, former Europe Minister Chris Bryant suggested that it was “optimistic” to believe that only £1.1mn additional funding would be needed (we share his opinion on this) and that there may be pressures from other member states further down the line for the EU to shoulder some of the cost burden of foreign representation.

Mr Bryant also said that there was no assurance in the agreement that no additional money could be requested in order for the EEAS to provide consular services – something which the UK and other countries are opposed to anyway.

And finally Richard Ottaway, new Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament, said that he thought the increased role for the new EU delegations – the fact that they represent the EU as a whole rather than the Commission – was potentially “one of the most significant changes” introduced under the Lisbon Treaty.

Update: The results of the division were 321 in favour of the motion, 12 against. Parliament stamps its approval on the EEAS.

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