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‘We look like amateur hour’: ex-diplomats, opposition decry Stéphane Dion’s dual appointment

By Chelsea Nash      

One ex-Canadian ambassador to the EU says it's 'more than a full-time job,' on its own. The government declined to respond to criticisms.

Stéphane Dion, the former foreign minister, is set to be the 'senior Canadian diplomat' in Europe, splitting his time as ambassador between both Brussels and Berlin. United Nations photograph by Elma Okic
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Former Canadian diplomats and the official opposition Conservatives are critical of the government’s decision to appoint former foreign minister Stéphane Dion as ambassador to both the European Union and Germany.

“We look like amateur hour,” Jeremy Kinsman wrote in an email to The Hill Times last week. Mr. Kinsman was in the foreign service for 40 years, and served as Canada’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom and as ambassador to the EU.

Former diplomat Colin Robertson said “it will be impossible to do justice to both EU and Germany with one ambassador, no matter how skilled and competent.”

In a statement announcing the appointment Jan. 31, the Prime Minister’s Office referred to Mr. Dion as becoming the “senior Canadian diplomat in Europe.” The move came after weeks of speculation on Mr. Dion’s next move after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) removed him earlier in the month from his cabinet spot as foreign minister. Mr. Dion also resigned as an MP.

Mr. Dion in Europe will work on “ensuring coherence across the activities of Canadian missions and providing strategic guidance to the prime minister,” read the PMO statement. He will spend his time in both Brussels, the EU nerve centre, and Berlin.

Mr. Kinsman said he can “assure you” being ambassador to the EU “is more than a full-time job,” one which is “being superbly done by a professional now.” And he said Germany is such a “decentralized” country that any ambassador there has to do a lot of travelling around the country, and should be living there full time.

Ms. Kinsman also said that in the era of United States President Donald Trump, who has openly celebrated Brexit, “the EU is now on the defensive, under pressure.”

So, he said, the “‘other North American’ country proposes to downgrade its representation to a part-time ambassador. How does that look? To the Europeans in worried touch with me, it has come across like ‘a lead balloon,’” he said.

While Mr. Kinsman said Germany is the most important player in the EU, Mr. Robertson said the appointment raises questions about Canada’s attitude towards the rest of the bloc: “Are the [rest] chopped liver?” he wrote in an email.

Dan Costello is the current ambassador to the EU, and has been in that position since the fall of 2015. Marie Gervais-Vidricaire is Canada’s ambassador to Germany, appointed to the job in August 2013.

Austin Jean, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said “certain specifics and logistical details remain to be determined” when asked where the current ambassadors would go next. Mr. Dion’s appointment has yet to be confirmed by the EU and Germany. Mr. Jean said the government is awaiting their responses.

Typically, when a new ambassador is announced, an agrément has already been reached between the host country and the sending country. In this case, Mr. Trudeau publicly proposed Mr. Dion as ambassador to both places before securing the okay from officials there, which is a minor diplomatic faux pas.

At the time of the email exchange with Mr. Jean, Mr. Dion was with the Canadian delegation visiting the EU Parliament and Germany last week. “He will be posted in the near future,” he said.

Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.),  his party’s foreign affairs critic, said Mr. Dion’s knowledge of the top players within the EU and Germany through his recent ministerial work might give him an edge that a normal public servant wouldn’t have.

However, Mr. Kent was also skeptical of the reasoning for the posting. “If there is a logic to this twin diplomatic posting to Europe, I don’t see it, and the prime minister has yet to explain it. I think in the terms of Canada’s diplomatic history, it diminishes, or would seem to diminish, Canada’s respect for both Brussels and Berlin,” he said.

The office of Parliamentary Secretary Matt DeCourcey (Fredericton, N.B.), referred a request for comment to the department. Mr. Jean said the government could not provide a response to the criticisms.

Slovenian Ambassador Marjan Cencen, who represents an EU member state, said he is not in a position to comment on these decisions. “This is a legitimate decision of Canada.”

“We are glad that such an experienced diplomat is coming to Europe; that’s all I can say,” he said.

Mr. Kent said upon returning from a recent trip to Eastern Europe with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he met with EU ambassadors. He said they asked him his thoughts on the appointment of Mr. Dion, which he gave, but that they “very properly declined” to offer their own.

“It should be explained sooner or later, not only to us, but to our European friends and allies and trade partners,” Mr. Kent said.

Germany’s ambassador to Canada, Werner Wnendt, was travelling outside the country and unavailable for comment this past week.

Mr. Kent said he’s also heard “echoes” that foreign service professionals “are not very pleased” with the dual appointment. Political appointments to abroad have long been a touchy subject for foreign service professionals, who spend their entire careers preparing for those same posts. 

Michael Kologie, who is president of Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) diplomats union, said in an email that “career-diplomats are almost always the most qualified and experienced candidates for heads of mission assignments, having spent many years and multiple postings overseas honing their craft.”

But, he said, “In this case, both Mr. Dion and Mr. McCallum, having served as the ministers for Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada respectively, are experienced and well positioned to serve as Canada’s heads of mission abroad.” He added that Canada’s foreign service officers always provide advice and support to all of Canada’s heads of mission.

Mr. Kinsman suggested the dual posting appears to be precedent-setting for Canada. “No G7 country has ever split an appointment with another G7 country,” he said. 

cnash@hilltimes.com

@chels_nash

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