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Harsh criticism of the EU’s foreign policy supremo

As the turf war for the European diplomatic service (EEAS) continues, MEPs are claiming High Representative Ashton is inexperienced and that she is incapable of handling the task of setting up the new diplomatic service. Ashton is “simply out of her depth” says German Christian Democratic Union MEP Inge Grässle. Grässle adds that the EEAS proposal is “totally on the wrong track.”

The criticism of Ashton follows a statement last Friday by the European Parliament, criticizing the Ashton’s EEAS proposal for not holding the diplomatic service accountable to parliament, and for creating an artificial separation of competencies between the EEAS and Commission in areas related to the European Development Fund and Instrument for Stability. In addition, the parliament was critical of the proposal calling for Ashton’s deputy, the EEAS secretary-general, to be civil servant rather than a political appointee.

Considering the enormity of the task, and the fact that jostling among established institutions vying to influence the direction of the new creation is inevitable, perhaps the critique of Ashton is unfair. Following her appointment as High Representative Ashton was criticized for being a candidate that represented the lowest common denominator. Never mind that her obscurity and inexperience was precisely what landed her the job in the first place. Prior to Ashton’s appointment, names such as David Milliband, Britains foreign minister, former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Massimo D´Alema, a veteran Italian politician, were bandied about Bruxelles. Assuming that one of these candidates was a realistic option, it is hardly clear that these high profile Europeans would have made more headway than Ashton.

Criticism of the High Representative seemed to be, if not dying down, at least becoming more nuanced. For example, she was recognized as an able negotiator with good people skills. In the words of a source present at the meetings of the high level group – the group tasked with drafting the EEAS proposal – Ashton was “good at working the room, working the meeting so that everyone feels understood and then she takes her decisions.” David O’Sullivan, the Irish EU director-general for trade, described her as “an outstanding trade commissioner” (Ashton’s former position) with “many of the political skills needed to make a success of this new job” The recent flurry of flak seems to have detracted from this modest kudos.

Should the present infighting first and foremost be viewed as an inevitable period of jostling that will subside, once the EEAS has carved out an independent role for itself? Or is the lambasting of the EU’s foreign policy supremo a sign that the EU is not ready for an independent and coherent foreign policy? Whether or not the parliament follows through on its threats to block the EEAS will be interesting to see. We will know more when the EU foreign minister discuss and possibly pass the proposal on April 26.

Considering that a newly created institution offers the first-comer a unique opportunity to mold the institutions future role, the quiet style of Lady Ashton is probably not ideal. Nevertheless, even if one accepts that the criticism of Ashton’s is accurate, the point must be made that this criticism should be directed at the EU’s lowest common denominator approach, rather than at the person chosen to represent the EU to the outside world.

 

Author

Finn Maigaard
Finn Maigaard

Finn Maigaard holds an MA in history from the University of Copenhagen. As an MA student Finn focused on diplomatic history culminating in a thesis on US-Danish security cooperation in the Cold War. Finn also interned at the Hudson Institute's Political-Military Center, where he concentrated on the EU's role as a security institution, and at the World Affairs Institute as a Communications/Editorial Research Assistant. Finn currently resides in Washington, DC and works as a freelance writer, and as Program Coordinator at the University of Maryland's National Foreign Language Center.

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