On Thursday 14 January, two days after the earthquake in Haiti, Catherine Ashton was ready to answer questions from the media. At a hastily organized press conference in Brussels, the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs presented herself as the driving force behind Europe's mobilisation to aid victims of the disaster. However, at the end of the afternoon, the British Labour politician opted not to travel to Port-au-Prince. Instead, she took the Eurostar back to London — a decision that has variously been described as a blunder or a deliberate choice. Who can say? What is certain is that the head of the EU's diplomatic service, whose appointment in November of last year came as a surprise to many commentators, let slip a unique chance to assert herself in her new role. And this is not the only opportunity that Baroness Ashton has missed. On Monday 25 January, she opted not to attend the Montreal conference for Haiti donors, where she was represented by France's Bernard Kouchner.
Her absence was made all the more conspicuous by the fact that the EU, which is the largest donor of aid to Haiti, had to battle to be included at the conference: an initiative launched by the US, Canada and Brazil.Baroness Ashton's low-key response to the Haitian disaster is a reflection of the inherent malaise that surrounds the new European power structure established by the Lisbon Treaty. Lisbon was supposed to simplify the functioning of the EU. However, as it stands, it appears to have made it more complicated. Post-treaty Europe is now characterised by an unsettled quartet of leading entities, with ambiguous and overlapping roles. The duo composed of Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy, the first permanent President of the European Council and Baroness Ashton is struggling to make an impression, while both the President of the European Commission and the rotating Presidency of the EU — a role currently occupied by Spain— are careful to defend their turf.
Van Rompuy - cautiously manoeuvring
As a result, Brussels still has nothing resembling the famous "number for Europe," which former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger allegedly wanted to call in 1970. "The new structure is in a breaking-in phase, but I agree the results so far have been less than extraordinary," admitted one diplomat. The cautiously manoeuvring Herman Van Rompuy is now in the habit of joining Commission President José Manuel Barroso for a weekly breakfast on Mondays. However, these friendly meetings may not be sufficient to resolve polite differences of opinion on how they should conduct their respective missions, particularly with regard to international politics. Although he has remained discreet, M. Van Rompuy is apparently planning on exercising extensive powers.
Officially, the Belgian former prime minister "is examining council policy" and consulting with European capitals in the run-up to the summit, which he has convened for the 11 February in Brussels, where the agenda is expected to focus on socio-economic and climate issues, as well as the reconstruction of Haiti. In the long term, it remains to be seen if he will break free of the influence of Paris and Berlin, which played a key role in his appointment. Ranged against him, Mr Barroso will be intent on defending against any intrusion in his territory by the new Council President. In a recent debate in the European Parliament the Commission President insisted: "It is all in the treaty: the Commission has a mandate to represent the EU in every field apart from security."
Zapatero - hosting debates
Barroso, who is currently waiting for his new team to take up their posts in February, has been careful to fragment responsibility for foreign policy within the Commission, which will have Baroness Ashton as its Vice-President. As result the High Representative will work closely with three commissioners who have been granted the portfolios of humanitarian aid, development and relations with neighbouring states. Mr Barroso has also placed a further Sherpa at international meetings in the shape of Portugal's Joao Vale de Almeida, who will take up the post of Director General of the DG Relex, one of the main components of the future diplomatic service that Baroness Ashton has been tasked to build.
The attitude of the rotating Spanish Presidency of the Union, the fourth piece of the puzzle, will not make matters any simpler. Madrid does not want to be overlooked. Notwithstanding stipulations to the contrary in the Lisbon Treaty, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has insisted that several high-level meetings, including summits with the United States and Latin America, be held in Spain — and not in Brussels. The Spanish Prime Minister will explain to visitors that his role is to host debates chaired by Council President Van Rompuy, although the Lisbon Treaty does not attribute any such prerogative to the rotating presidency. "We prepared our presidency at a time when there was no certainty as to the outcome of the votes on the Lisbon Treaty," points out Miguel Angel Moratinos. The head of the Spanish diplomatic service, who would like to have been appointed to the post of High Representative himself, makes no bones about stealing some of the limelight from the discreet Van Rompuy-Ashton duo — an initiative that will make him indispensable.
Incommunicado after 8 o'clock
"Catherine Ashton is killing off the job," exclaims a disgruntled European diplomat to Jean Quatremer. The author of theCoulisses de Bruxelles(Brussels behind the scenes) blog believes that the High Representative "has decided to do as little as possible. Her new job, which she barely made any effort to obtain, has failed to spark her interest or even to rouse her from her torpor. Although she has been supposed to live in Brussels since the end of 2008 — when to everyone's surprise, she was appointed to the post of European Commissioner for Trade — she has yet to take an apartment in the capital of the Union. Her sole preoccupation appears to be minimizing the time she spends in boring Brussels so that she can take the first train back to London."
The European Parliament was not convinced by "her muted response to the Haitian crisis, and a wide spectrum of Conservative, Liberal & Democrat, and Green MEPs have deplored the apathetic approach adopted by the head of Europe's diplomatic service. It also appears that she is unwilling to telephone world leaders, with whom she is supposed to be in ongoing contact," and "she has not bothered to seek the necessary authorization to enable her to view defence related files — which means that she has no access to classified documents." In the evening, "she is never contactable after 8 o'clock and all of her incoming calls are rerouted to the European Situation Centre…” The "sabotage" of her post "is perfectly in line with the goals of the Foreign Office, which was delighted by the EU's appointment of a British candidate. Her nomination was supposed to bring the UK into the mainstream of the Union; however, it now appears that the reverse is in fact the case. And this effect will likely be amplified if the Conservatives win UK elections next spring," points out Quatremer.