Lady Ashton steering the CFSP: many question marks remain

Catherine Ashton, the new representative for External Relations of the EU, was the first member of the European Commission to be heard by the European Parliament on Monday. During the hearing, Lady Ashton said: « Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, Somalia and Yemen are clearly among some of the top priorities« . Emphasis is thus firmly placed on the Middle East, but about the question of the goals, the new head of the European diplomacy has not been clear. She mentioned her meeting with George Mitchell and Tony Blair the next day or even a future meeting with Hilary Clinton in order to analyze how they “can pull together strategies and actions on the global issues« , but has provided no details on a specific European policy to be implemented in the Middle East. Note however that she declined the proposal of the MEP Bastiaan Belder to organize soon an EU-Israel summit.

Closely followed by the media, this first demonstration of Lady Ashton has little convinced the MEPs who left the chamber en masse. Similarly the press does not show enthousiasm vis-à-vis the first steps of the baroness. The Guardian describes the intervention of the English woman as « Solid, convenient – but uninspired » even if it also stresses the « quiet diplomacy” she was answering the questions with (11/1/2010). Le Figaro concerns about the ability of Catherine Ashton to make « Europe’s voice heard in the World » (« Ashton défend une «stratégie européenne unique», 12/1/2010). As for the Courrier International, it deplores the wrong choices made by the EU concerning its ambassadors in the Middle East. Only Miguel Angel Moratinos, Special Envoy of the European Council of Ministers for the peace process in the Middle East from 1996 to 2003 made a strong impression on people in the area (« De piètres ambassadeurs », 15/1/2010). In addition the latter is the current Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, which holds the Presidency of the EU since January the 1st. The French daily Le Monde wonders if Lady Ashton, a novice in international politics, is able to match for such a figure (« Les débuts laborieux de Catherine Ashton à la tête de la diplomatie des Vingt-Sept », 12/1/2010).

On the occasion of his hearing before the European Parliament, Andries Piebalgs, the new Commissioner for Development Policy of the EU said meanwhile he wanted to work in close collaboration with Catherine Ashton, in order not to “give money with one hand and take it away with another policy”.This observation may relate among other things to the consequential aid granted by the EU to the Palestinian Authority, without any clear policy on the part of the twenty-seven to support these efforts in the long term.

Those who expected a stronger foreign policy of the EU since the very beginnings of the new Lisbon Treaty will be disappointed. People will have to wait for the engine to start up and for the machinery to be lubricate before the new Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) reaches its cruising speed. As to know whether Catherine Ashton is the appropriate captain to command this ship, only the future will tell.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée

>> Detailed account of the hearing of Catherine Ashton, see the European Parliament website