How the European Parliament had its “say” on the EEAS

By Magdalena Bien | 7 November 2010

To quote this document: Magdalena Bien, “How the European Parliament had its “say” on the EEAS”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Sunday 7 November 2010,, displayed on 27 September 2022

At the end of March 2010, when a proposal for a Council decision on the establishment of the External Action Service was launched, even Catherine Ashton, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, could not know that it would take until the end of October for implementation to begin. The parliamentary procedure was not supposed to drag on. What happened in the European Parliament that had such an influence on the EEAS's creation process?


A Unique Negotiation Framework

The establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS or Service) indubitably represents a benchmark in the development of the European Union. It is a milestone in the EU's search for its own identity.

The process leading to the establishment of the EEAS is unique in itself. For the first time, the Council, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the High Representative sat down at the negotiation table together. Ultimately, the negotiations took the shape of a quadrilogue; a novelty in the EU’s legislative process. Until recently, trilogues were most common (Council - Commission - European Parliament) and these were already complex and intensive. This new framework is the fruit of legislative changes in the Lisbon Treaty.

The proposal for the EEAS was put on the table by the High Representative. The European Parliament’s (EP) role was at first sight very limited; it was to solely play an advisory role. Nonetheless, the EP had full co-decision powers concerning the budget and staff regulations; and due to good strategic planning, the EP was able to use them to their full extent. The other actors in the quadrilogue did not initially expect this.  

Parliamentarians’ Dreams vs. High Representative's Proposal

Less than two months prior to the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, MEP Elmar Brok initiated a report that was adopted by the EP before the High Representative’s proposal. It was not the first time that the EP was dealing with questions of External Service and the Union’s emerging diplomacy. Some MEPs, in fact, have extensive experience in the field, dating back several years. The Brok report included the EP’s main considerations related to the shape the EEAS would take and a ‘wish list' regarding its future.

The European Parliament demonstrated a flexible position when defining the scope of the EEAS’s tasks. According to the report, "the Commission, striving to avoid duplication, should provide a specific model for the departments concerned, such as DGs for trade, enlargement and development ..." (paragraph 6c of the report). At that time the EP dreamt of a much broader EEAS consisting of a greater number of policies and DGs.

The position of the European Parliament was firm when it came to questions of funding and budget. The EP supported an incorporation of the EEAS into the Commission's structure, principally for budgetary reasons. According to the MEPs, it was the only way to ensure the transparency of the EEAS’s spending, as well as enable them to use budgetary oversight as a method of control over the new body. These arguments crystallised the EP’s main negotiation target.

It must have been surprising for the Parliament to see that, at the end of March 2010, very few of their suggestions had been included in the High Representative's proposal and that their main postulates were not integrated at all.

The EP’s ‘wish list' and Negotiation Strategy

The MEPs unanimously agreed to use their powers over the new Service without scruple. In addition, they used the time-limit imposed on the High Representative to their own advantage. In fact, the rapporteurs decided to launch an ‘alternative proposal’. The document was published on April 6th by Elmar Brok (Foreign Affairs Committee,(AFET Committee), European People's Party) and Guy Verhofstadt (Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO Committee,) Allliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe). The MEPs described precisely how they envisaged the purpose, the architecture and the staff of the EEAS. They also suggested a new organisational structure. The framework included ideas concerning amendments of the Financial Regulation and the Staff Regulation. Several new arguments related to budgetary control issues were included in the document. Moreover, a paragraph on ‘democratic accountability' showed their strict position on the topic.

Regarding the appointment of senior EEAS staff as well as the Heads of Delegations and EU SRs, the European Parliament requested a right of hearing before the start of their duties. Another consideration dealt with the recruitment of EEAS officials and the lack of guarantees for geographical balance. A parliamentary rapporteur on the Staff regulation from the AFET Committee, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski MEP, focused his opinion on this problem.

He suggested the introduction of the "Kinnock reference" in the Staff Regulation. This "Kinnock reference", used for the reform of the EU civil service before enlargement, would put an obligation, similar to the one on the staff of the European Commission and other institutions, to have balanced national quotas for staff. Behind his amendments, there was a strong conviction that the EEAS cannot be effective in its work unless it contains a geographical balance in its staff composition. An adequate geographical representation is necessary to provide the EEAS with legitimacy and credibility and to assure a sense of Union ownership of the EEAS.

After the Brok/Verhofstadt proposal was published, the High Representative was forced to invite some MEPs into the negotiation room with the Commission and the Council. She  also started her own discussions with the Parliament at the same time.

It was clear from the beginning that the EP will talk about the EEAS only as a whole ‘negotiation package' and link to it the issues of the Staff and Financial Regulations’ amendments. This strengthened the EP’s impact and created a position in which it obtained co-decision rights for nearly all of the legislative process.  

At least eight different Committees were involved in the adoption of the EEAS legislation in the end, illustrating the complex parliamentary procedures governing the EP. Most of these Committees submitted an opinion on either the staff or budget regulations. The budget amendment for 2010 was required as well. This time, as is characteristic of complex legislation, the process took a couple of months, the parliamentary holiday interrupting the process for a month. Even pressure from the High Representative was not enough to speed up the adoption. The EP was in a convenient position to ask many concessions from the High Representative.

The High Representative could not do much to escape this strategy. One goal was to reach a political agreement and a vote on the Council decision before the holidays. This is why Catherine Ashton presented two declarations, outlining her promises to the MEPs before any vote was taken in the EP: a declaration on political accountability and a declaration on central administration.

The declaration on central administration tackles, amongst others, the problems of the crisis and management structures, which were raised by many non-governmental organisations and put on the agenda by the EP. In line with the Declaration on Political Accountability, the High Representative has promised to "build on the consultation, information and reporting engagements undertaken during the last legislature by the former Commissioner for external relations, the former High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as by the rotating Council Presidency. Where necessary, these engagements will be adjusted in light of Parliament's role of political control..."

In this declaration, the High Representative also gave the European Parliament the right to interview the newly appointed Heads of Delegations and the EU SRs to "countries and organisations that the Parliament considers as strategically important". They shall appear before AFET for an informal exchange of views before beginning their duties.

The plenary vote on the Council decision on the establishment of the EEAS was held just before the parliamentary holiday in July 2010.

Concessions Given and Compromise Reached

Budgetary oversight was a first concession given by the High Representative to the EP. This question was definitely the most contentious issue of the negotiations before the vote in July. It was clear from the very beginning that the European Parliament, which has the right of veto in budgetary matters, will not give up on EEAS.

Dealing with this point in July enabled the MEPs to bring to the table even more demands within the staff and financial regulations, where the EP has de jure co-decision powers. In the end, many of the EP’s demands in the ‘wish list’ were satisfied by the High Representative. The only major question that remained was the lack of geographical balance. The binding quota proposal did not receive parliamentary majority despite the strong lobby from the new Member States' MEPs. There was a split in the EP on that topic and the amendment, which was adopted in the AFET Committee, fell under JURI. The final compromise reached states that the EEAS staff shall be "recruited on the broadest possible geographical basis."

The final vote on the Staff and Financial Regulations, together with the Budget 2010 amendment (granting EEAS over 9 million EUR in 2010 already), was taken at the plenary session on October 20th, allowing the High Representative to begin her work.

The Outcome and its Impact on the EEAS

The negotiations on the EEAS were a trial of the EP’s strengths in the EU arena. The EP’s strategy proved successful in the process, which can serve as evidence that the EP’s powers have grown along with the Lisbon Treaty changes.

It is also interesting to note that, during the negotiations, the European Parliament was the institution that represented most the 'EU interest'. It was the Parliament who defended the communitarian nature of the EEAS, when the Commission was reluctant to give up its responsibilities. Moreover, the MEPs put in a lot of effort to secure that the ‘ownership' of the EEAS be properly shared between the institutions and the Member States. They made sure to look at questions of balance in terms of staff and budgetary tules. The EP’s new role, as well as the quadrilogue during the negotiations, are steps towards further integration in the institutional set-up. It also demonstrates that enhancing the institutional balance in the system is to be strived for as it may serve the Union’s interests.

The question raised is: how will the outcome of the negotiation process impact the Service’s effectiveness in the future? Hopefully, thanks to the EP’s contribution, amongst others, the EEAS has a chance to become a real, transparent and reliable platform for exchange and services for the EU’s external action and policy. The EP demanded that the High Representative submit the first progress report by mid-2013. This shall allow for an insight into the EEAS’s first fruits.


Magdalena Bien wrote her MA Thesis on the EEAS at the College of Europe, Bruges. She is currently an accredited assistant in the European Parliament in Brussels. The article represents solely her  views.


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Source photo : Voting a resolution_2009-04-22, by European Parliament, on flickr