Blog AnalysisEEAS - High Representative

Cathy Ashton, one year already… (first assessment)

(Photo credit: Council of the EU)

(To analyse) Happy Birthday ! Eh yes. It was just ago. One year already. Baroness Catherine Ashton made her appearance in the press room of the Council of the EU, consecrated as the new "High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy" (1). The first named according to the Treaty of Lisbon. A little hesitant, intimidated, not knowing what to say, as if confused to be there.

Lady Ashton was not, however, unknown to the European scene since she had taken over from Peter Mandelson as Trade Commissioner. But she was not very well known, in the small world of diplomacy or European defense except by those who follow trade policy. And the beginnings were rather laborious and risky. This blog was not among the last to notice it (2). But the faults do not lie solely with the person concerned. And we can trace, in this recent history, some elements.

"What are you doing tonight"

Cathy Ashton did not have time to prepare for this position. Everything is decided in fact at the meeting of the leaders of the socialist parties. According to some information, it was around 15 / 16 p.m. in the afternoon that Catherine Ashton was warned that she " better not leave Brussels as she planned. And stay close to the phone. The equation is quite simple indeed for the Socialists who have the "hand" by virtue of a political agreement for the appointment of the High Representative. The candidate was all found: the Briton David Milliband. But he is reluctant to bury himself in Brussels. And nothing helps. A last minute call is not enough.

It is therefore necessary to find the suitable personality: a Briton (Blair having been excluded from the European Council), a socialist (to balance the post of President of the Commission held by the right in the person of JM Barroso), and a personality already introduced into the European circle. The name of Geoff Hoon, the former Minister of Defense is making a round. Discarded. Too compromised in cases that could lead to justice. What if we had a wife.

Zapatero, the Spanish Socialist Prime Minister, a fervent defender of parity, defends the "Catherine Ashton" option. No other name to put in track. Despite some discussions the agreement is made. It is already late in the afternoon. José-Manuel Barroso warns Ashton. "You must come to the Council". No time to prepare. It is immediately the "arena" with the 27 heads of state and government. Then the "pit" with the journalists, the press conference. This first meeting will be missed...

(Credit: European Commission March 2010)

Approximate beginnings

After this miss, there will be a few odds. Catherine Ashton undoubtedly made some errors of youth.

First of all in the constitution of his team. By surrounding herself with followers, mainly from her portfolio at Commerce (3), and leaving aside the experienced team (even if it was a little too anarchic for the taste of the Briton) of her predecessor, Javier Solana, she deprives itself of a great deal of knowledge and experience. This error will only be gradually corrected (it is not quite corrected yet).

Disaster strikes very quickly. In the form of the earthquake in Haiti (4). Europe has reacted well, despite everything that has been said. But in scattered order, as before. While we have so much praised "the unique voice of Europe", there is no one, neither in Haiti nor in Brussels. It must be said that the main manager of the crisis, the Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, is in full vacation. We remember that the commissioner approached, the Bulgarian Jeleva, has just had such a bad audition (5) that we must quickly find a replacement (6). And his replacement, excellent, Kristalina Georgieva, is not yet confirmed, let alone in office (7). Result, without visibility and political act, all the concrete action carried out passes "outside the media" (8).

The absence of the informal meeting of Defense Ministers in Palma de Mallorca in February further aggravated the doubt (9). Not that it had any fundamental importance. But it inevitably disappointed and caused trouble (10). Whatever one may say, it's a major misstep that will take several months to resolve.

These last two errors, very publicized, are still present in everyone's mind (the first went more unnoticed) and have tarnished the image of the High Representative. But this one cannot be loaded with everything...

A job to make schizophrenic

Combining the three functions of High Representative / European Commissioner / President of the Council of Foreign Ministers is an impossible job to hold. We are starting to see that today.

It is surprising that the designers of this system did not realize this earlier. Originally provided for in the discussion on the European Constitution, the mechanism was nevertheless based on a good feeling: to bring together the two functions of the High Representative and the Commissioner for External Relations, to avoid any harmful competition or divergence. To make matters worse, the designers added the presidency of the council of foreign ministers. As we look at the list of functions (11), we can only be amazed.

Moreover, no government has imagined that the same character could thus belong to three different bodies, navigating between diplomacy, administration and politics, straddling the executive power and the legislative power. In several States (even all European States), such a device would be considered unconstitutional. We are at the limit of the conflict of interest.

(Credit: Council of the EU, April 2010)

The confusion of roles is indeed real. As European commissioner, Ashton must be independent of governments. As High Representative, she is their faithful and loyal servant, coordinating efforts, more often as a missi dominici than as a minister. As President of the Council of Ministers, she must stimulate and lead the discussions. And through its various delegates in the working groups, the highest being the COPS, it can directly imprint its mark on the discussions.

A full-time diary

In terms of schedule, this job is impossible to keep. Imagine:

1° As commissioner, a meeting every Wednesday of the European Commission (where you have to be present and which you have to prepare, because the files are sometimes numerous, often concrete and complex. A commissioner (which is also Mrs Ashton) must be able to decide on all issues, including those that are not within its remit. Cathy Ashton thus has a voice in the chapter on GMOs as well as on the liberalization of financial services, the assessment of the excessive deficit or the plans for restructuring eligible for the Globalization Fund...

2° As President of the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, it is at least one meeting per month, to be chaired, with a minimum of ten subjects to be mastered. And on the defense side (which is his responsibility), there is also almost one meeting per month (one informal, one formal, to chair on the EU side; the same but simply to attend, on the NATO side).

3° Diplomacy must be permanent. These are ambassadors to be accredited (from the EU to leave, from outside who arrive in Brussels). These are contacts to be maintained (with some "hot" issues such as Iran or the Middle East). Etc... In short, a "full time agenda" impossible to keep for a normally constituted physical being.

Explanation: The Treaty does not provide for anything, the States do not agree on anything

On the High Representative, the Treaty makes little provision. And all the achievements of Javier Solana's ten years were above all through practice and the unsaid (an unsaid which also sometimes led to inaction). As for the diplomatic service, which is a new "organ" of the European Union, the Treaty of Lisbon is even more laconic. A diplomatic service is set up by merging the services of the Commission and the Council, with the participation of the Member States. And that's it (12).

It is not a lack of foresight. On the contrary. Not foreseeing the detail was clairvoyance, the very condition of an agreement. The European institutions and the Member States were, in fact, divided on the format, the ambition, the nature of this service. What we soon saw. And that should continue for a few more years. There is a logic there. To paraphrase Clausewitz, the "diplomacy is the continuation of war by other means"...

(Credit: European Parliament, October 2010)

A slow shift in sovereignty

We are in an area of ​​pure sovereignty of the Member States which, little by little, will become a competence shared with the European Union. It is not a question of will but by the conjunction of many events: erasure of the power of European States which no longer have their colonies, emergence of new world powers, reorganization of the diplomatic scene, economic globalization, economic crisis and budget, etc. All events, which force, in fact, the European States to act together because they can no longer act separately on their side. States no longer have the means of their past power, quite simply!

We do not find, here, in a process of rapprochement displayed, programmed and voluntary, as for the Euro, where the different stages were (in a certain way) transparent and the criteria for passing from one stage to another , quite objective (at least quantified). We are in a more dense process of forced rapprochement. Result: a lot of time wasted in secret meetings and discussions.

First success: the diplomatic service has its status and its heads

Cathy Ashton, in one year, has therefore been able to score a few points. Starting with this hard-won status for the European External Action Service (13). In one year ! One year compared to the usual time for drafting and first implementation of European (or even national) legislation, or even the time that the same mechanism would have required, approved in a European Treaty and ratified by the Member States, c is very little. It's even fast. Now just have to set it up. And Catherine Ashton's tenure (if she stays out) of five years will just be enough. The time that the diplomatic service finds "its marks", "its breath", and "its cruising speed", it will take between "5 and 10 years" according to all the experts I have consulted.

But the first appointments of the heads of the diplomatic service appear balanced and judicious (14). And not many people were found to criticize them. A record in a world where "Brussels bashing" is a favorite sport.

Other results

visit of Serbian President B. Tadic to Brussels (Credit: European Commission September 2010)

The acceptance of a dialogue between the Serbia and Kosovo (15). Of course, not everything is done. And Ashton is not a Deus ex machina who resolved a 2-year-old (or more) conflict in 20 weeks. Everyone has played their part, pushing in the same direction, like a good rugby scrum which allows you to get closer to the goal line and allows the ball to be cleared near the lines to score the try. For the first time, we were able to see the advantage of combining the post of High Representative/Vice-President of the Commission. The Serbs were not able to play too much on the differences between the institutions.

La visit to gaza must also be credited to it (16). Even if the Middle East file is essentially managed in Washington, the symbolism was there. Unfortunately it has not been transformed. And the absence of Catherine Ashton's first negotiation meeting caused consternation among some Europeans (French and Spanish), but also in the Arab camp (17). Which is not very good. However, Europe has a foot in the door, with the Eubam mission.

Other cases are well taken care of. Like that of the maritime piracy. Admittedly, the prosecution of the pirates is stalling. Kenyan courts are reluctant to apply the rule of universal jurisdiction (18). And Mauritius is dragging on signing an agreement (19). But they are not the only ones. Most states in the European Union are no more disciplined or voluntary (20). And the file could see some progress soon, including in New York, on the side of the UN which must renew the resolution. The file of the Georgia he is developing favorably with the Russian withdrawal of Perevi (21), and the absence of major incidents.

Ditto for the file, delicate, of the iranian nuclear where the letters follow each other (22). About the NATO-EU cooperation, we should see a first breakthrough this Friday at the Atlantic Alliance summit followed by the EU-USA summit, judging by the intensive exchanges (23).

In this rapid assessment, however, one downside remains on the european defense security policy where the lack of enthusiasm of the beginning does not fade away. Significant initiatives are still awaited in this area. It must be said that the Member States, in particular France or the United Kingdom, do not contribute a little to this lack of enthusiasm (24).

The report card

In the end, we could find on Cathy Ashton's report card: "Despite difficult beginnings, encouraging progress. Must avoid dispersing and not be distracted by the troublemakers of the class. Encouragements"... Come on Cathy one more effort. And in 4 years, maybe, the Ashton bashing will turn into Ashton Flowers. You will be missed. Yes Yes!

(Credit: European Parliament, October 2010)

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Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).