Quiet start from EU High Rep Ashton? Good! Go for the long game

Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative, is facing a mountain of a job and a rockfall of criticism across Europe after her first 100 days. But most of the negativity is a matter of Brussels gossip, bruised little egos and out-dated thinking about international politics. Ashton has got things more right than her critics. Rightly, she is focused on the long game rather than short-term headlines (which some journalists find impossible to forgive and others equally impossible to understand).   

For which century should the External Action Service be designed?

Cathy Ashton’s first big task is to lead the process of constructing the new European External Action Service. It’s common to refer to the EAS as Europe’s foreign ministry and Ashton as its foreign minister. But that’s a mis-translation. Lest you haven’t noticed, allow me to point out that the EU does not have a government. Rather it is made up of 27 of them. If Ashton tries to be Europe’s foreign minister she’s going to collide with the others, or at least they’ll spend a lot of time tripping over each other’s heels. The same goes in trumps for the EAS itself; if she tries to make it into a supra-ministry for foreign affairs she will create a big unholy mess.

One of her smaller problems is that, necessarily, most of the advice she can get about how to construct the EAS and more generally how to do her job is from people who only know foreign ministries. So they can only help her build one. Likewise, most of the criticism she is getting – as reflected in a big piece in the Guardian, for example, or as sharply expressed by the choleric Jean Quatremer, a  well connected French journalist and blogger – reflects this default preference for the new institution to be like a lot of old ones. The irony is that if Ashton successfully creates an EU foreign ministry, she’ll be taken apart for that by the same people.

Quatremer and the boatload of critics quoted in the Guardian piece – some anonymously – need to get their heads round the idea that (a) this is the 21st century, so (b) it would be a waste to use the once-only opportunity of the EAS’s birth to create a 19th or 20th century institution, and in any case (c) when did duplicating national institutions at the EU level become a good idea? Cathy Ashton is streets ahead of her critics in thinking through this challenge.

Gossip and egos

You can always when tell little minds are at large because pointless factual errors are perpetrated and perpetuated. Quatremer hilariously entitles his piece “Ashton doesn’t pick up the European phone after 8pm.” And his equally inaccurate remark that she had never got herself an apartment in Brussels is scaled up by the time the Guardian has it to her having lived in hotel rooms for 18 months as EU Trade Commissioner and now High Rep. Both the no-phone and the no-apartment statements are untrue and silly. What we are dealing with here is gossip rather than a thought-through critique.

Let’s go a bit further with that.

  • One criticism of Ashton is that she has gone to the wrong meetings. How do we interpret that? Surely not as a mutter from people who went to a meeting and found to their chagrin that she wasn’t there? Or maybe from the Spanish hosts and organisers of the meeting in Majorca she blew off in order to be in Kiev the same day? Forgive me but I long since stopped taking this kind of thing seriously. The officials who were quoted by the Guardian presumably retained their anonymity because they were embarrassed by their own pettiness.
  • Reportedly Pierre Lellouche, the French minister for EU affairs, has complained that Ashton didn’t go to Haiti soon enough. When I saw she hadn’t gone, I applauded the fact that at least one senior politician decided not to block the airport in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake; it was much better to defer her visit until later when, by discussing plans for long-term recovery and how to support them, it could actually do some good to be there. If indeed Lellouche criticised her for not joining the throng that got in the way of the relief effort, we should mourn the fading of a once fine intellect.
  • Ashton has also nettled some people by appointing other people to diplomatic posts. That’s certainly a hard one to interpret what it’s all about.
  • While the Guardian carries a story full of criticisms that she is ineffectual, in the same issue it has a front-page story that the French and German governments are anxious that she is out-manoeuvring them and they are losing out on key appointments. So, um, which is it to be?

All that and more – it’s a long, long way, a whole Brussels boulevard away from a fully thought-through critique. It’s no more than a hotch-potch of personal axes being ground and some out-dated ideas on international politics, spiced up by entertaining anglophobia from Quatremer (his story’s crap but he unfolds it beautifully) and rank poor reporting from the Guardian.

The long game

Having a go at the High Representative for not being extremely visible begs a couple of questions: if you want the EU to make an impact in world affairs, what impact? And within that, given 27 member states, what is the specific role for the EAS and its head?

The issue really is, what can the EAS bring to the table? What can it add to what 27 member governments already bring? There is nothing to gain and much to lose by duplicating what the foreign ministries can (or should) already do. This means the EAS and its head should not be chasing the headlines, trying to be in the front row for the photo op at the next big disaster or gala. Nor should they be focused on the short-term issues that consume most of the energy of most ministries of foreign affairs for most of the time.

It also means the EAS must try not to be just another foreign service, even if foreign service personnel will make up the bulk of its staff. We don’t want or need another institution doing the same old foreign policy thing; it will be a great gain for the EU and for world politics if the new service is a different kind of service.

What could that mean? One of the abiding biases of all foreign services is their focus on process rather than results. It’s hardly surprising given the nature of diplomacy as unending network and relationship building with an ever-shifting cast of characters; for most of the time, meetings, statements and joint declarations are as close as diplomacy gets to a result. It is also hardly surprising given the way that international politics moves is largely shaped by forces that diplomats and their ministers do not control; diplomacy responds and reflects much more than it initiates or directs. But one of the qualities the EU has is its staying power, the durability of its consensus-forged policies, its long time-lines and, in short, a capacity for the long game. And that has produced real long-term results in Europe, decisively changing the political and economic map, the nature of government and the structure of opportunities available to EU citizens.

There are three key issues around which the EAS can develop a long-game role:

  • Security and peace, on which the EU has a history and in which it can claim one of its three greatest successes (spreading prosperity and enhancement of democracy being the other two);
  • Climate change and, more broadly, the tough environment and resource issues, in which the world badly needs a new input of sustained drive and direction, and where Europe has some good policies on paper that need to be seen through into action (and a few not so good that have to be seriously reworked);
  • Equitable international trade relations, on which the vast majority of individual EU member states (25 out of 27) can have no world impact except by working together – and for France and Germany the prospect of individual impact is more apparent than real.

It is around these three issues that the EAS can weave its policies towards Russia, the Middle East, China, its stable alliances and its support for international development.

The EAS and the High Representative

On visibility and results, Ashton has riffed smartly on the remark by UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband that the EU President should be somebody who could stop the traffic in Washington, DC; she told Time magazine, ‘In fact my job is to keep traffic moving. I’m not interested in the limelight. I’m interested in what we can actually do.’

So it seems that, more by luck than judgement, a High Representative has been selected who is not trying to treat the job as the vehicle for an ego trip. This is one up-side of the much criticised choice of somebody who has never been elected to national representative and legislative office. It is probably a fair point that she cannot be expected to have a career politician’s instinct for how to do politics. Good!

It is also a fair point that she lacks the long contact with senior diplomats and their ministers that can be claimed by others who think they would do a good job in her position. But don’t over-estimate the significance of that lack of familiarity with the diplo-clan – fresh approaches can be a good thing and Ashton’s record in the House of Lords shows she is a deal-maker and a conciliator, a record earned by her ability to win confidence from people whose political views are far from her own.

The challenge is to bring these talents to bear, despite her acknowledged lack of prior deep familiarity with the issues and the problems, in designing an External Action Service that is not just another foreign service and can play a long game on security and peace, climate change and natural resources, and equitable trade.

To do this she is not only going to have to unfold the big vision on these three issues and where the EU should be on them in three to five years time. She is also going to have to pay detailed attention to the structure of the new service and to how its incoming personnel are re-trained and, once absorbed into the new institution, given incentives that keep them focused on the long game and a strategic approach on the three decisive issues. She is going to need to ensure that the policy apparatus on peace and security does not get over-militarised, and she has to figure out how to stop a short-sighted combination of narrow national interests and special corporate interests crawling all over EU policy on climate change, the environment and trade.

Everything else is just noises off from disgruntled diplomats and politicians who lack a proper understanding of the challenges and possibilities in front of EU international policy. The long game is what counts.

2 thoughts on “Quiet start from EU High Rep Ashton? Good! Go for the long game

  1. Interesting post. Interesting to compare the analysis to the recent speech in Bruges by Herman vanRompuy, who also seems to be combining a pragmatic understanding of realities with the long view:

    ” … we should not be surprised that the more the Union deals with foreign affairs, in the
    coming decade, the more certain differences in attitude between Member States will rise to the
    surface. History and geography play an important role in foreign policy. So this is not just large Member States versus small Member States. It is also about having historic ties with certain regions in the world, or about being an island versus sharing a border with Russia. Such differences are real and will not go away like that … ”

    The rest of the speech is also worth looking at in terms of the analysis of the post.

    Click to access 113067.pdf

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