Bildt and Miliband chide EU foreign chief

The foreign ministers of Sweden and Britain joined forces on Thursday in directing a sharp rebuke at Baroness Catherine Ashton over a lack of transparency in the recruitment process for EU diplomats.

The embattled European foreign affairs chief was warned by both the Swedes and her own government to ensure more openness.

Britain’s Foreign Minister David Miliband teamed up with Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt to deliver the embarrassing slapdown to his former cabinet colleague following a row about the appointment of key ambassadors.

As foreign ministers from the 27 EU nations gather in Cordoba, Spain, to argue on Friday and Saturday over priorities including how to deal with near-neighbours, conflict or crisis areas and major trade partners or economic rivals, Ashton must once again pack her flak-jacket going into her first appearance at the key strategic talks.

Last week, the EU’s High Representative for foreign and security affairs was berated for failing to attend a similar, first informal gathering of defence ministers since her appointment during a carve-up of top jobs before Christmas.

Now, she is again under fire over the make-up of the bloc’s new External Action Service, a multi-million-euro (or dollar) re-working of diplomatic missions intended to give the sum of the EU’s parts a consistent international voice and presence, and which Ashton officially heads.

The EAS “will only work if the European Commission, the member states and the council secretariat are able to work together coherently,” Miliband and Bildt wrote in a letter to Ashton released to the media.

Institutional squabbling is a permanent feature of European political life between the countries that fund the EU, the Brussels executive that runs its day-to-day affairs and the elected parliament newly empowered to scrutinise bloc-wide laws that have seen ever-greater sovereignty over economic affairs at least seep away from national capitals.

“Recruitment of staff should be transparent and based on merit,” Miliband and Bildt added as battles for control of some 30 key global nominations due to be made over the coming months intensifies.

Ashton already stands accused of being sidelined amid controversy over the appointment of Joao Vale de Almeida, a close ally of European Commission chief

Jose Manuel Barroso, as the EU’s new envoy to Washington.

Bildt, who had previously written to all his EU colleagues complaining about the issue, said this was a decision taken by Barroso’s commission, whereas under the Lisbon Treaty, Ashton, and through her the 27 EU member states, should have been consulted.

The newer member states, a group of central and eastern countries unofficially led by top economic performer Poland, also fear being left out in the cold through backroom manoeuvering.

Ashton insisted last month that the Washington appointment was “my decision,” but a clip round the ears from her former London paymasters may make it even more difficult to keep a lid on in-fighting fuelled by a perception of weakness.

Already dogged by criticism of a lack of diplomatic experience during her initial job interview in front of the European parliament, she received further brickbats for failing to rush to Haiti after it suffered a devastating earthquake on Janury 12 — finally making the trip on Wednesday, just as fresh quakes had struck Chile and now Taiwan.

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