Is Catherine Ashton hoping to put an end to European dithering in response to the revolutions in Arab states? On 16 February, the European Union’s “foreign minister” was in Tunis to announce a cash injection for the new Tunisian administration (17 million euros in the short term, and a total of 258 million by 2013). On 22 February, she will become the first foreign affairs representative to travel to Cairo since the fall of the Egyptian head of state, and visits to Lebanon, Israel, the Occupied Territories, and perhaps even Jordan may also be on her itinerary.

Until now the EU has been content to sit on the fence and take note of the fall of “friendly” regimes -- a surprising attitude when you consider that the Mediterranean rim countries have long been viewed as part of Europe’s backyard, and as such should be an immediate priority for the new common foreign affairs policy. Although she is now at the head of a diplomatic service, Baronness Ashton has been reluctant to go it alone and risk provoking the ire of EU member states. For example, she could have appointed special envoys to exercise an influence on events in Tunisia and Egypt, but for that to happen Europe’s 27 member states would have had to agree on a policy.

In short, Lady Ashton’s indecision is first and foremost a reflection of indecision in EU states, where her peers in national administrations such as France’s Michèle Alliot-Marie have been consistently wrong-footed by developments. “Ashton has decided to act as the general secretary of the member states,” complains Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Green group in the European parliament, one of the severest critics of the EU’s failure to take action. “If European foreign policy is to be the sum of national diplomatic policies, then it will be dumbed down to reflect the lowest common denominator.”

European Parliament remains silent

However, as Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso pointed out to MEPs on Tuesday, the member states, and in particular major member states, are unwilling to grant the slightest degree of autonomy to Lady Ashton. At the same time, the European parliament has not demonstrated that it can deliver a more decisive performance: “In response to a seismic shift towards democracy, which is equivalent to the fall of the Berlin wall, the parliament has remained silent,” points out Cohn-Bendit. On 18 January, the alliance of European socialists even opted to vote with the their right-wing colleagues in the EPP to block the adoption of a resolution on Tunisia until the situation in the country had stabilised.

No doubt, apathy would have continued to prevail in Europe but for the threat of increased migration pressure and the 5,000 Tunisian boat people who have now landed in Italy. Yesterday, in an address to MEPs in Strasbourg, Interior Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström announced that the EU would allocate resources to assist Italy in its bid to prevent the massive arrival of migrants in Europe. “Europe’s tepid response to the Arab revolutions has been determined by an immigration policy which has relied on direct support from dictatorships in the Southern Mediterranean,” complains German Green MEP, Franziska Brantner, who further points out that “the collapse of these regimes will be a disaster for Europe.”

Recognition of this state of affairs was implicit in last month’s decision by the European Parliament to offer an association agreement to Colonel Gaddafi’s government in exchange for cooperation on the issue of illegal immigration. But in view of the increasing dissent in Libya, it is worth wondering what the future status of such an agreement will be.