EU envoy to US flaunts new powers

EU Observer (Link) - Andrew Rettman (August 11, 2010)

The EU�s new ambassador to the US, Joao Vale de Almeida, has underlined the new powers conferred on EU envoys by the Lisbon Treaty while taking up his post in Washington.

In a series of interviews to US-based press on Tuesday (10 August), the ambassador noted that he is empowered to speak on behalf of EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and EU member states.

�I do not wish or will impose myself on the member states� ambassadors ... Where we have a common position, I am the one leading the show. Bilateral matters are the mandate of the 27 [EU member state] ambassadors,� he told the Washington Post.

�In this area code, you call me,� he added, on the apocryphal tale of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once asking whom he should telephone if he wants to speak to the EU.

�I�m the first new type of ambassador for the European Union anywhere in the world,� he told Agence France Presse.

�Our delegations now cover a wide spectrum of issues well beyond the economic dimension, trade dimension and regulatory dimension, to cover all policies in the union, including foreign policy and security policy.�

The EU is currently in the process of converting its 138 foreign missions into EU delegations empowered to speak on behalf of the whole union.

In the past, the missions� main task was to implement EU projects and to channel information back and forth to EU institutions.

The Belgian EU presidency aims to wrap up the conversion process by the end of the year, while EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton is in the coming weeks to name a �first generation� of 31 new EU heads and deputy heads of delegation in her European External Action Service.

Mr Vale de Almeida told AFP that he will focus on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East peace process in the foreign policy area: �On the foreign policy side, Iran is top of the list.�

Transatlantic economic ties and the recovery from the global financial crisis will also lead his agenda, he added.

In a formal letter adressed to US President Barack Obama, the EU ambassador downplayed the idea that China is becoming a more important partner for the US than the EU. �The emergence of new powers has led to predictions that transatlantic relations will be less important in the future, but this view overlooks the enormous stock we have vested in one another,� he wrote.

Mr Vale de Almeida�s appointment, decided in Brussels earlier this year, saw allegations of cronyism against the EU commission. Mr Barroso, a fellow Portuguese countryman of Mr Vale de Almeida, reportedly pushed through the nomination over Ms Ashton�s head.

EU diplomats at the time also complained the new ambassador - a former journalist who served as an EU commission press spokesman, an advisor to Mr Barroso and, briefly, as head of the commission�s external relations department, but who has no diplomatic experience - is not up to the job.

Meanwhile, EU countries remain less than comfortable with the new division of power under Lisbon.

�What you see in the big emerging countries and in the US, is that each [EU] country defends its privileged relationship. When you talk to the Chinese or to the Indians they say: �Yes, we have this EU summit once a year. But for the rest of the time, each of your countries comes and says the EU is not important�,� a veteran EU diplomat told EUobserver in a recent interview.