What action, Lady Ashton?

Catherine Ashton was cast as Europe’s international voice, the head diplomat of an EU full of world-wide ambitions. Unfortunately, she is not making her voice heard, is nearly invisible and has already lost the confidence of most of the member states.

Published on 28 January 2011 at 14:39
Ta-rah, got a Eurostar to catch. Lady Ashton in Brussels, September 2010.

“The European External Action Service [EEAS] is in place? Oh really, what action?” laughingly asks a senior diplomat, who is otherwise a Europhile. In Brussels, the tone is becoming more and more cutting, mocking or saddened whenever the subject of European diplomacy or of the “service” is raised. Placing the EEAS under the tutelage of a High-Representative rather than under the responsibility of a “European Minister of Foreign Affairs, as called for in the Constitutional draft prior to the Treaty of Lisbon is a highly symbolic gesture. Or rather it is a symbolic step backwards obtained by the United Kingdom, whose former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown used to say that between the world and states there is nothing.

Catherine Ashton, who hails from the same political party as Gordon Brown, and who landed by chance in the position of High-Representative, is having a hard time meeting the challenge. “In her place, others would have already given up,” says one of her advisors, “but she’s gotten into the game and she’s got a solid hide”. Her advisors even dare to mention the “positive balance sheet” of her latest initiatives towards finding a solution to the Gaza issue or the defense of Christian Copts in the Middle East. She is credited with success in the Balkans following renewed talks between Serbs and Kosovars. On Iran, she is trying to take up the baton of her predecessor, Javier Solana, by guiding negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation. But the High-Representative can’t forget what she was told upon taking office: “Welcome. But you should know you will be ripped apart each time you open your mouth”.

The early days of the Baroness Ashton, were, it is true, difficult, studded with errors and hesitations, accounted for by her lack of diplomatic experience. She had trouble overcoming criticism for speaking only English and over her long family weekends in London. Early on, her absence during the Haïti earthquake, her lack of interest in security and defence issues, gave rise to criticism.

All crises seem the same for Ms Ashton

Against all odds, Lady Ashton announced in December 2010 that a “new departure” was being given to security and foreign policy. After some trench warfare between the Council, the Parliament and the Commission over the powers and control mechanisms for the new organism, it was finally officially launched on January 1.

Its 3,650 civil servants were drawn mostly from the former Directorate General for External Relations at the Commission but some also come from the Directorate General for External Relations of the Council and from the delegations of the 27 member states throughout the world. Another 120 positions will be created and diplomats from the member states will join the EEAS. Will this new arrangement open the way towards a single European voice?

Reality is grim on this point. For, after Belarus, Ivory Coast, and Tunisia, one crisis follows another and all seem the same for Ms Ashton. There is always a lag-time that causes impatience in part of the press room in which the press gathers each day at the Commission. The Commission spokesperson is a perfect example of an observation made by French diplomat, Maxime Lefebvre: “Joint declarations – of the EU – sometimes are there only to paper over the differences of the Member States”.

New members and founding countries feel under-represented

Many have the impression that, a year after her nomination, the High-Representative for Foreign Affairs remains absent. This lack of visibility is exasperating certain European capitals. A senior European decision-maker is categorical and ferocious. “Everyone has turned the page, Ms Ashton is useless and the service was put into place in such chaotic fashion that already no one has faith in it,” he said. Ms Ashton’s “passivity” discourages all pooling of diplomatic efforts and compromises the exchange of sensitive information, he added.

The unease rose as the organization of the EEAS was unveiled. The new members, but also founding countries such as Germany or Italy, feel they are under-represented. Although it long promoted the idea of a more substantial EU diplomacy, France is also unhappy. Other than the nomination of Pierre Vimont as Executive Secretary General, no French diplomat has been found worthy in the eyes of Lady Ashton. Ireland’s David O’Sullivan was named Chief Operating Officer and Robert Cooper will hold the rather vaguely-defined role of Special Advisor to the Baroness, and will, therefore, be in direct contact with her. Human Resources, infrastructure and embassies will all be at the hands of Lady Ashton’s compatriots and this has caused a great gnashing of teeth.

For some, however, the frustrations extend beyond questions of recruitment and give rise to diplomatic initiatives which appear in contradiction with the goals pursued by certain capitals. Thus, while Ms Ashton seems uninterested in the defence aspects of European construction, or, in any case, unwilling to cross NATO, Paris is favouring greater military cooperation via bi-lateral talks with Britain – much to the chagrin of Italy, Germany and some others. In a revealing choice, France barely leaned on the European Union to manage the crisis in Ivory Coast, a country long in France’s African sphere of influence.

A “facilitator” on the world stage

Yet, some, such as MEP Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the EU parliament still believe. “If we want to avoid a loss of power in the multi-polar world, we need a global diplomatic strategy – for defence, for climate-change, monetary or security issues,” he argues.

Will Ms Ashton be able to elaborate this vision despite her tendency to adopt, at best, the policy most acceptable to the States thus ignoring the latitude and the prerogatives allowed by the Lisbon Treaty? The Baroness seems to desire little more than being a “facilitator” between the Member States. Before Socialist MPs on January 12, she used the same term – “facilitator” – to define the possible action of the EU on the world stage.

For the moment, Europe is satisfied to remain the “narrative power” described by political scientist Zaki Laïdi –able to talk about the world, to state its values, but not (yet?) able to impose itself as a true power.

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