As the European parliament prepares for January's public hearings on President José Manuel Barroso's second Commission, the chief interest lies in the new post given to the UK's Catherine Ashton. The role is often dubbed ‘double-hatted' but as more people begin to read the Lisbon treaty a rather different, and more complex, picture emerges.
One may wonder if it was the magnificence of the job's title which appealed to Peter Mandelson, the UK business secretary: 'High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and First Vice-President of the European Commission'. For short, let's call her the EU's foreign minister.
The job - in fact, triple-hatted - combines the former functions of Council High Representative Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, along with the current Council presidency role of Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt. Ms Ashton's main role is to initiate proposals in common foreign, security and defence policy. When she acts with the explicit support of the Commission, she obliges the Council of Ministers of foreign affairs - which she chairs - to act by qualified majority vote.
Ms Ashton also ensures the implementation of the decisions adopted by the European Council and the Council of Ministers. She will ‘conduct' or 'put into effect' the policies under a Council mandate, using national and Union resources. Where the European Council has defined a ‘common approach', the minister will coordinate activities. She represents the Union in these matters, conducts political dialogue with third countries and international organisations.
That Ms Ashton, vice-president of the European Commission, will convene and chair the Foreign Affairs Council is a highly significant innovation. She and the Council will ensure that member states comply with the principles of sincere loyalty and mutual political solidarity. They also aspire to 'unity, consistency and effectiveness of action'.
Where all EU states do not participate in international organisations, (including the UN Security Council) or conferences, the foreign minister will be kept informed by those which do. When the EU has a common position on an item on the agenda of the Security Council, those member states which sit on that body may invite her to present it.
It remains the function of the Commission, however, under the authority of President Barroso, to 'ensure the Union's external representation' in fields other than foreign and security policy. Ms Ashton will therefore be responsible in the Commission for ensuring the consistency and coordination of the EU's external action according to Commission procedures, as well as being expected to 'assist' the Council and Commission ensure consistency between external and internal policies.
The minister will be associated with the group of certain states entrusted from time to time with civilian and military missions. She will be consulted about the establishment of permanent core groups in the field of defence. She will have to propose Council decisions on the financing and administration of an intergovernmental start-up fund for civilian and military missions.
The foreign minister will often be seen in the European parliament and will regularly consult and inform it on the ‘main aspects and basic choices' of common foreign, security and defence policies, taking its views into account.
In short, Cathy Ashton will be very busy. She may, therefore, propose the appointment of special representatives to carry out her mandate on particular issues. In matters exclusively concerning foreign, security and defence policy, the three foreign ministers of the ‘trio' team presidency of the Council of Ministers will be able to deputise on her behalf and under her authority.
Ms Ashton will be helped in particular by her fellow commissioners responsible for development policy, enlargement and neighbourhood policy, and overseas aid. Yet other commissioners, namely those of trade, energy, climate, justice and home affairs, will also be associated with Ms Ashton's work.
The foreign minister is to be 'assisted' by the new European External Action Service (EAS), which will cooperate with national foreign ministries and comprise officials from the Council and Commission as well as staff seconded from national diplomatic services.
There is no precedent for such a creature. The EAS will be nesui geris. It will not be an agency of the Commission or Council, but it should be organically linked to the Commission for the purposes of finance, personnel, administration and technical services. If it is not (as some in the Council wish) there will be interminable negotiations between the EAS and the Commission whenever Ms Ashton wants to do anything. Speculation about the autonomy of the EAS or ‘equidistance' from existing institutions is misplaced. For the EAS to work well it must have the trust of, and be close to, both Council and Commission. It must command all the assets and resources necessary to promote an active foreign policy.
Over at the Council, there are big changes. With the exception of Ms Ashton, foreign ministers have been excluded from the European Council, which becomes an EU institution in its own right. The old General Affairs and External Relations Council disappears, with the spoils divided between the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and a General Affairs Council (GAC).
The FAC is to 'elaborate the Union's external action on the basis of strategic guidelines laid down by the European Council and ensure that the Union's action is consistent'.
The GAC is to ‘ensure consistency' in the work of the different configurations of the legislative Councils. Yet it shall also ‘prepare and ensure the follow-up' to meetings of the European Council in liaison with the Commission and the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.
Ms Ashton's nominee will chair the Political and Security Committee, and be responsible for the political control and strategic direction of crisis management operations. Council working groups will only gradually mutate from the rotating presidency towards the Ashton regime.
It will be important that the timetabling of Council meetings reflects this separation, and that politically charged agenda items are not allowed to migrate from the FAC towards a GAC stuffed with foreign ministers. Foreign ministers in the FAC need to get to do more foreign policy, while a new class of Ministers of Europe in the GAC should coordinate better the legislative work of the Council and their own governments back home.
The GAC will have to work within the framework of a new multiannual work programme agreed with the Commission and Parliament. This is designed to lead to the extinction of the frequently pretentious and always distracting programmes of the rotating presidency - usually no more than a bundle of national policies with European maquillage slapped on.
Nobody ever said that running the EU was going to be easy. Ms Ashton's job is clearly complex and difficult. It ill-behoves those prime ministers who have appointed her now to subvert her. If she gets parliament's approbation in January, which is likely, she will need its continuing support to maximise her freedom of manoeuvre.
Andrew Duff is a British Liberal Democrat MEP and ECFR council member.
This piece was first published in the Financial Times.