Lady in Waiting
So where is the EU's foreign policy chief?
BRUSSELS — The crisis in Libya is a rare instance in which Europeans can plausibly claim to be outdoing Americans in foreign policy, and a rarer one still of the old world being more prepared than the new to use its military muscle. But while France and Britain have burnished their leadership credentials, the same cannot be said of the European Union. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign-policy chief, has missed her best chance to date to seize the international spotlight. And Ashton's low profile is particularly striking in light of the fact that she is the first occupant of an office designed to ensure that the European Union would assert itself effectively in times like these.
But the bloc's new, much-vaunted, foreign-policy structures have been largely sidelined in the current crisis over Libya. When it finally came, leadership arrived not from Brussels, but from Paris and London. Unified the EU was not: Public disagreements have shattered any semblance of cohesion among the 27 member states. While Britain and France pushed intervention, Germany not only refused to back their motion at the United Nations Security Council, but also removed its ships from a naval blockade in the Mediterranean. Although Ashton issued regular statements, chaired meetings, and visited both North Africa and Egypt, she never emerged as a key power broker.
BRUSSELS — The crisis in Libya is a rare instance in which Europeans can plausibly claim to be outdoing Americans in foreign policy, and a rarer one still of the old world being more prepared than the new to use its military muscle. But while France and Britain have burnished their leadership credentials, the same cannot be said of the European Union. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, has missed her best chance to date to seize the international spotlight. And Ashton’s low profile is particularly striking in light of the fact that she is the first occupant of an office designed to ensure that the European Union would assert itself effectively in times like these.
But the bloc’s new, much-vaunted, foreign-policy structures have been largely sidelined in the current crisis over Libya. When it finally came, leadership arrived not from Brussels, but from Paris and London. Unified the EU was not: Public disagreements have shattered any semblance of cohesion among the 27 member states. While Britain and France pushed intervention, Germany not only refused to back their motion at the United Nations Security Council, but also removed its ships from a naval blockade in the Mediterranean. Although Ashton issued regular statements, chaired meetings, and visited both North Africa and Egypt, she never emerged as a key power broker.
All this comes less than 18 months after the European Union ushered in the Lisbon Treaty, designed to build a foreign policy worthy of the world’s largest trading bloc. Where Ashton’s predecessors were forced to rely mostly on the lure of EU membership to gain influence in the region, the latest treaty created a new EU diplomatic service and gave her control over significant financial resources. The European Union still has no military capabilities of its own, but many Europeans hoped that the EU’s financial firepower and international prestige would finally be organized to consistently pursue the aggregate interests of all 27 member states.
Yet increasingly, those aspirations of common international strategy come across as adolescent fantasies of political maturity.
Some of the reasons for Ashton’s shaky start lie in the fact that, unlike several marquee Europeans who were passed over for the job, she never really wanted, nor expected, this sort of position. She was selected in November 2009 on grounds of political and geographical balance. If Ashton doesn’t seem prepared for the chess game of global grand strategy, it’s because, in some sense, she isn’t. Although she’s not a political novice, Ashton has never held elected office. She was appointed by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to serve in his cabinet, and was later named as leader of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain’s Parliament, where she quickly earned a reputation as an adept conciliator.
In Brussels, too, she is known for preferring negotiating behind the scenes to sparring publicly with sharp-elbowed colleagues. As she put it at the time of her appointment as foreign-policy chief, she is not "an ego on legs." Her first EU post, as trade commissioner, suited this pragmatic, low-key style: she built solid relations with her U.S. counterpart, Ron Kirk, and negotiated a free trade agreement between the European Union and South Korea. But she seems ill at ease in the role of figurehead for a new, more assertive, European foreign policy.
Of course, in some sense, Ashton is creating the job as she goes along. As the first occupant of her post, she has inherited little by way of an effective bureaucratic infrastructure. Ashton recently selected and gained approval for a Brussels headquarters for the new European diplomatic service she is setting up, but it may be another nine months before she and her staff can move in and work from the same building. She is also suffering from the lack of an effective communications strategy: Last month, she appointed a chief spokesman to a position which had lain vacant for a year, and only recently have seasoned diplomats like Pierre Vimont, former French ambassador to Washington, been brought on board. But the initial negative press headlines following her appointment have already left their mark: The repeated questions about her suitability have fostered have a bunker mentality in Ashton’s inner circle.
Ashton admits that she has faced a steep learning curve. "It is work in progress," she told me in early March, speaking in her current, temporary office on the 12th floor of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive. "We are dealing with all these situations for the first time." She said, though, that she had learned from her experience last year following the natural disaster in Haiti, when she was criticized for reacting slowly. What she concluded was that "we could do things better."
But Ashton’s first major foreign-policy test — the cascading series of revolutions in the Arab world — has been infinitely more complex than Haiti.
Europe’s struggle to agree through January and February on whether to pressure Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign has echoed in the policy debates about Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and the Libyan opposition. With the memory of the Iraq quagmire fresh, some countries felt queasy at any mention of military intervention. Ashton’s standing was itself damaged when one of her spokespersons portrayed her as very skeptical about a no-fly zone. At a stroke, that annoyed Paris and London, the bloc’s two big foreign-policy powers.
But personal gaffes aside, the current North Africa crisis shows that some of Ashton’s problems are structural and would be hard for anyone to overcome. The European Union is not a sovereign state, and when it marches in step it’s usually because it is obliged to. In areas like environmental policy or the internal market, EU laws can increasingly be determined by a majority vote of member states, and those decisions are enforceable by EU courts. But foreign policy remains primarily a responsibility of national governments, so Ashton finds herself responsible for a diplomatic architecture and aspirations that are not backed by the accountability of or enforceability under European law. The hope is that integration of national foreign policies will be achieved organically, but, in reality, national capitals will need to commit to being more accommodating if any EU foreign-policy chief is to stand a chance at success.
For now, the bloc’s big member states have not shown a penchant for helping Ashton out, their leaders appearing more concerned with their own political profiles than hers. Early in March, French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded a special summit of EU leaders, only to pre-empt it by giving de facto French recognition to the Libyan opposition the day before. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, visited Tunisia early in February, well before Ashton was able to schedule her own trip. And just as she was about to become the first major-league politician to visit Cairo since the uprisings, up popped David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, a few hours earlier to grab the attention of European television cameras.
But while Britain and France are by far the biggest defense powers, Ashton is tied to the pretense that all 27 countries have an equal voice. Behind the scenes, she has tried to coordinate policy among other European governments, but the vast and varied array of national interests has repeatedly exposed itself. In the case of Libya, for example, Italy initially insisted on taking a cautious position. It had deep financial investments there, colonial ties, and a number of initiatives to stem a flow of migrants to its southern borders. Malta, another country on the front line of potential refugees, also resisted any intervention. And Poland led several East European states in arguing that Libya’s problems were an internal affair.
Among Ashton’s greatest institutional weaknesses is that her main interlocutors are Europe’s collected foreign ministers, whose power and credibility have steadily eroded for a variety of reasons. Germany’s Guido Westerwelle, for example, has been undermined by his domestic unpopularity. Britain’s Hague has yet to make much impact on the foreign policy stage, largely because his government had previously been focusing on domestic economic issues. France’s Bernard Kouchner was, for months, a lame duck; his successor, Michèle Alliot-Marie, was recently sacked amid the fallout from the uprisings in North Africa. Her heavyweight replacement, Alain Juppé — judging from the way he was taken by surprise by his president’s decision to recognize the Libyan opposition — appears not to be as keyed in on major decisions as he would have thought.
Indeed, foreign policy in Europe is increasingly determined by its prime ministers and presidents. And they, in power, protocol, and seniority, far outgun Ashton. On big, divisive issues such as whether to press for a no-fly zone over Libya, she has little option but to keep her head down and follow their lead. Javier Solana, who held a less powerful version of Ashton’s job before she took office, found it impossible to say anything on the subject of the invasion of Iraq when Europe’s big member states were divided. The Lisbon Treaty was intended to help bridge that gravitas gap, but it has clearly not done enough on that score.
Recognizing this, Ashton has made a concerted decision to lower expectations. She has quietly dialed down some of the more towering ambitions that Brussels bureaucrats and European insiders had of her. She has said she will concentrate on the few areas where she can realistically hope to exert influence — most notably, international development. She is also dedicated to developing long-term strategies to bolster Europe’s soft power. This month, together with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, she presented a well-received joint paper on how to reset relations with the Arab world. This program, endorsed by EU leaders at a summit also this month, suggested that all grants and loans should be conditional on democratic reform, which would amount to a significant change in EU policy.
But these are not the sort of speedy, authoritative, ambitious results some had been hoping from Europe’s first empowered foreign-policy chief. Ashton’s efforts seem destined to be overshadowed by public disagreements among the big member states, which once again will leave Brussels groping for a raison d’être. Events in the Arab world may be moving with dizzying speed, but the job of building a European Union foreign policy will continue to travel at its own, glacial pace.
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