The issue of secondments of civil servants abroad must be put in order, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides told the House Watchdog committee on Thursday, commenting on a special report by Auditor-General Odysseas Michaelides relating to secondments to diplomatic missions, international organisations and European Union bodies.
Kasoulides told committee members that, while the government is not opposed to secondments in principle, seconded civil servants should return to Cyprus after a number of years, in order to bring back the expertise they acquire.
Ministry permanent secretary Alexandros Zenon noted that since 2014, when problems in the secondment process were identified, the issue has been brought before the cabinet twice.
Although the only item on the agenda of Thursday’s session was Michaelides’ annual report for 2015, discussion soon veered off to the special report issued on Wednesday.
A 2014 cabinet decision required that all secondments are pursuant to areas of special interest of the Cyprus state, but, the report found, its provisions have not been followed, and untargeted secondments continued to be authorized.
In a July 2016 memo to all government departments, Zenon asked that all secondment applications go through his office, and Michaelides confirmed that this directive was enforced.
Kasoulides was asked to comment on a finding by Michaelides, according to which a Cypriot female diplomat was seconded to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s office on the urging of President Nicos Anastasiades.
Michaelides had charged that the diplomat had been selected without the opportunity being communicated to all eligible candidates.
The diplomat, the minister said, was not selected by Anastasiades for secondment, nor did her secondment serve any domestic political expediency.
According to Kasoulides, Anastasiades was informed by Juncker of a vacancy at the European Commission and the government’s view was that “it was very important to have a Cypriot diplomat in Juncker’s office”.
“In any case, she doesn’t belong to [ruling party] Disy,” Kasoulides said.
Turning their attention to the auditor-general’s 2015 report, Kasoulides said the ministry’s attitude is to comply with the audit service’s recommendations, and pointed out that since 2013 the ministry has cut its office-leasing budget by more than a quarter, overseas staff payroll 11 per cent, ambassadorial residence expenses by 19 per cent, and rent allowances by 23 per cent.
“We did not ignore the economic crisis,” Kasoulides said.
The downside of this fiscal contraction, he said, was that, relative to his previous stint as Foreign Minister – from 1997 to 2003 – morale among the diplomatic corps was much lower due to the fact that less staff are available to handle the workload.
Half of all diplomatic missions are one-person jobs, the minister said, means that the ambassador is required to perform all duties.
With regard to “enlightenment methods”, or programmes to educate foreign diplomats on the Cyprus problem, Kasoulides said they were obsolete, since there is no relevant body abroad – governments or members of parliament – that does not know what the Cyprus problem is.
He said the enlightenment funding was subject to shoddy handling.
“We learned in the past to use the Cyprus problem as the excuse for anything,” he said.
“With the excuse of the alleged presence of Turkish Cypriots in conventions abroad, some had their annual trip. We got rid of all that.”