Attacks on Ashton as misleading as they are unhelpful

Katharina Klebba, events manager of the Fabian Society, on the many attacks on European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Baroness Catherine Ashton.

Katharina Klebba is the events manager of the Fabian Society

Cathy Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, received yet another attack in today’s Daily Telegraph for her supposed weak leadership. The article is the latest blow in a series of criticisms from several sides, which have left Baroness Ashton in a difficult position.

Only last month, she faced harsh criticism from EU member states when Belgian foreign minister Steven Vanackere stated in an interview that Ashton had failed to lead the EU’s response to the revolutions in North Africa effectively. While there is certainly a point to be made about Europe’s disappointing reaction to the Arab spring, equating this with a failure on Ashton’s part – in other words personalising foreign policy – is not.

Rather it is a convenient way to explain the continued weakness of the EU as a foreign policy actor, while avoiding a more nuanced debate on the root causes for this.

As Policy Network’s Olaf Cramme has recently commented on this issue:

What all of these “leadership crisis” accounts have in common is an exclusive focus on personality – to the neglect of structures and circumstances. The thirst for outright success or failure dictates the rules of the game.

In the case of the EU this characterisation is highly problematic and hinders a more sophisticated debate on how its institutional organisation can evolve to tackle the current dilemmas.

Thus the zealous condemnation of Lady Ashton and a certain schadenfreude about her supposed inability to strengthen Europe’s voice on the international stage is not only grossly misleading but unhelpful.

It does not allow for a more balanced and much needed debate on the potentials and limitations of the EU as a foreign policy actor addressing both institutions and bodies such as the European External Action Service (EEAS), Ashton’s diplomatic corps, as well as concrete policy objectives.

Critics of Ashton like to point to her limited foreign policy experience and lack of political authority as reasons for the absence of a common EU foreign policy. This seems to suggest that a more experienced person, such as David Miliband – who was offered the post before Ashton – would have been more successful in delivering a credible foreign policy strategy.

While his experience as UK foreign secretary would certainly have been beneficial, it is unlikely he would have been more fortunate in forging common EU positions on issues. After all, the EU High Representative does not set the foreign policy agenda but is primarily responsible for the coordination of the diplomatic architecture.

As David O’Sullivan, the EEAS chief operation officer, says:

“The high representative has difficulties expressing a common European view if one doesn’t exist.”

O’Sullivan adds that, while the EEAS seeks to coordinate a shared position among member states, it:

“…cannot at the end of the day change fundamental disagreements between member states.”

Nothing has demonstrated this more clearly than Libya, which saw the EU once again divided over a foreign intervention. Similar to then High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana – a heavyweight figure in the foreign policy sphere, having been a former foreign minister of Spain and NATO Secretary General – in the run-up to the war in Iraq in 2003, Ashton had little choice but to watch France and Britain take centre stage.

Furthermore, the harsh criticism of Ashton is not only unjustified on grounds relating to the structure of her role, it also entirely disregards her achievements of recent months. Thus, while it has not been possible for Ashton to forge a common EU position on all major foreign policy questions, she has given the EU a credible voice on the world stage.

From Syria to Sudan, Serbia to Palestine, and Libya to Egypt, Ashton has put the EU as an actor in its own right on the agenda with, depending on the case, considerable influence. One example of this is the recent development at the UN where Ashton managed to secure a major breakthrough in the representation of the EU at the United Nations, pushing through a resolution at the UN General Assembly which grants the EU delegation ‘super observer’ status, giving it the right to the speak on behalf of the EU.

While this is a major success for the EEAS and Ashton herself, she has not managed to use this as political capital and this significant achievement was ignored by many member states and has gone largely unnoticed by the wider public.

Likewise her recent visit to Benghazi in late May, where she opened an EU diplomatic mission, marked the most senior visit to the city by an international representative since the beginning of the conflict, a visit that saw the EU foreign policy chief underline her for support for the rebels.

She said:

“We are here for the long term and what we can offer is support to Libyan institutions and the economy. We are here to support you all the way.”

Ashton also met with the head of the Transitional National Council Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who thanked the European Union for “supporting the revolution” – prompting remarks from commentators that she is better known and appreciated abroad than within the EU.

Thus, what can be said is that Ashton and her team have not yet managed to effectively communicate their many successes to the public.

As the European Policy Centre’s Megan Kenna argues:

The EEAS and Baroness Ashton should promote its triumphs in response to its many critics. The Service must increase its accessibility both to the Member States and the general public; it should draw attention to positive results while improving the delivery of its message. Weak or lacking communication and information sharing on important topics will only draw further attacks.

It will be a long time, if ever, before we are able to speak of a truly coherent EU foreign policy; however, this should not stop us from acknowledging the long way we have come in recent years to have at the very least a level of coordination on a range of critical foreign policy issues.

In the short term, much remains to be done for Lady Ashton with the development of the EEAS to give the EU a louder voice on the world stage – but we would be much better served fostering the continued advances in this area rather than falling into a pattern of destructive and unhelpful comments on the state of the EU’s foreign policy.

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