Paddy Ashdown proposed as European special envoy for the Balkans

Former Liberal Democrat leader's appointment to be considered on Thursday by foreign secretary William Hague

Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and international overseer of Bosnia, is in the frame to become a European special envoy for the Balkans, according to senior sources in Brussels.

Catherine Ashton, the Labour peer who is the EU's foreign and security policy chief, is to discuss Ashdown's possible appointment at dinner in London on Thursday night with William Hague, the foreign secretary.

Hague, whose office is headed by Arminka Helic, a Conservative party foreign policy analyst and a Bosnian Muslim who fled to the UK from the Balkans in the 1990s war, is a keen supporter of Ashdown. A few months ago the two men jointly penned an article criticising EU policy in Bosnia and calling for a more robust approach.

"Since I left the Balkans four years ago, there has been constant speculation about a Balkan envoy," Ashdown told the Guardian today. "Obviously I think it's a good idea."

Ashton travelsto Sarajevo, the Bosnia-Herzegovina capital, today for a conference of Balkan leaders, EU foreign ministers, and senior officials from the US, Turkey and Russia.

Diplomats in Brussels said the establishment of an EU envoy for the Balkans would be discussed. Ashdown, however, would need the support of other EU member states to secure the post. He could run into resistance from Germany, which is worried that Ashton's fledgling European diplomatic service is being dominated by Britons.

"There are many ideas circulating in Baroness Ashton's head. This is one of the ideas she is considering," Ashdown said. He had long advocated the post of EU Balkan envoy, but declined to say whether he was interested in the post.

Ashdown was the international high representative for Bosnia in Sarajevo for four years until 2006 and was praised and criticised for being the most "muscular" of the officials to have run Bosnia since the end of the 1992-95 war. The new EU envoy post would not be confined to Bosnia, but would also involve troubleshooting in Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania.

"We're quite keen [on Ashdown]," said an EU official. "She [Ashton] will appoint a special adviser for the Balkans. But that needs to be approved by the member states. Everyone agrees on the principle. But the personality?"

The speculation about Ashdown coincides with the arrival in influential positions in London and Brussels of a network of officials with experience of and strong views on the Balkans.

In addition to Helic in Hague's office, David Cameron's office is headed by Ed Llewellyn, who was Ashdown's political adviser in Sarajevo. Several people in Ashton's office in Brussels have also worked in the Balkans, particularly Bosnia.

"A special Balkan envoy would be good, with a wider mandate than just Bosnia," said a senior Bosnian diplomat. "William Hague talks about it a lot. Ashdown is usually seen as someone with muscles and who imposed things. But he also achieved things."

Hague and Llewellyn are known to support a much more robust policy particularly on Bosnia, which is dysfunctional and utterly divided despite 15 years of western "nation-building".

Hague came into office last month calling for a tougher approach to Bosnia, triggering the first criticism of the new foreign secretary. Milorad Dodik, the hardline leader of the Bosnian Serbs, mocked Hague, saying he would like to see "how big his muscles are".

In Brussels, Ashton has singled out the Balkans and Bosnia as a priority for European foreign policy.

Speculation that the Labour peer might "cohabit" uncomfortably with a Tory foreign secretary appears misplaced and Cameron has privately assured Ashton of his support.

Resistance to an Ashdown appointment is likely to come from elsewhere in Europe.


Ian Traynor in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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