Last month, Cathy Ashton came in for unprecedentedly open criticism from EU foreign ministers, as well as the UK’s Europe minister David Lidington.
Lidington’s main criticism was of her demand for a 6 per cent increase in her budget, which he called “somewhat ludicrous”.
Yesterday afternoon Ashton had her chance to reply. She told a Lord select committee, she simply didn’t have the money to pay the number of staff she had been given when her diplomatic corps, the European external action service, was created. She told peers:
I inherited my staff from other institutions. They are very able, great people, but they need to be paid. The amount of money that was transferred with them does not match the amount I need to pay them.
It’s a message that will anger many on the Eurosceptic right, who have warned about “competence creep”, where the EAS takes on an ever larger role at the expense of national embassies. For that group, Ashton did have some mollifying words at least, reassuring peers that defence policy in particular would remain very much the prerogative of national governments:
I don’t think the EAS is a replacement for what countries do very well.
She insisted the time when the EU could make a decision like going to war in Libya remained a long way off. That will please the foreign office, but might not be enough to win support for her demand for new money.