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A Milestone for Europe

baroness_ashton_largeMartyn Bond outlines the career and the strategies of Baroness Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for External Relations.

Gone are the days when Henry Kissinger could ask in desperation, ‘Who do I dial when I want to talk to Europe?’ Baroness Ashton has been the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for three months now, and recently she combined that position with the role of Vice-President for External Relations, at the European Commission – an appointment officially endorsed by the European Parliament. ‘I am listening,’ she told the Parliament during a recent debate on the Middle East. ‘I am starting on a journey of learning.’

She took over the job at the EU from Javier Solana, who bowed out toward the end of last year. But the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force at around the same time, expanded the Baroness’s job description to include the Vice-Presidency of the European Commission. Catherine Ashton’s job now brings together the hard edge of European defence policy – Solana’s former responsibility – with ‘softer’ components of foreign policy such as food aid, humanitarian relief and trade, where the Commission has a long track record of acting on behalf of member states. In other words, her job now encompasses the huge task of ‘European security’.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton welcomed Baroness Ashton’s appointment – along with that of Herman von Rompuy as the new President of the European Council – as ‘a milestone for Europe and its role in the world.’ And President Obama underlined the importance of the new role, adding: ‘It will strengthen the EU and enable it to be an even stronger partner to the United States.’ Baroness Ashton spoke the same language in a debate before the European Parliament: ‘Conditions for an effective co-ordination between the US and the EU in the Middle East have seldom been better. I am here to make sure Europe acts consistently and effectively.’

Despite some sniping from the sidelines, she has shown herself cool and calm in coping with heated parliamentary debate, always bringing discussion back to facts and figures, getting to the rational core of issues and building agreement, even a consensus, wherever she can. Despite these qualities, she has come in for a lot of criticism, especially from UK MEPs. Nigel Farage, of the euro-sceptic UK Independence Party, carped that she ‘has never had a proper job and never been elected to public office,’ but he – and others – misjudged her extensive political experience.

Born in Lancashire in 1956, and with a degree in economics from the University of London, Catherine Ashton first worked on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a powerful protest movement in Britain during the 1970s. Later she worked in the corporate sector as Director of Business in the Community, an organisation devoted to encouraging greater corporate social responsibility. She chaired a local health authority and was Vice-President of the National Council of One-Parent Families. In 1999 Prime Minister Tony Blair made her a life peer, and she rose rapidly through the Labour ranks, after beginning as a junior minister in the Department of Education, where she took on responsibility for the government’s flagship education project, ‘Sure Start’, between 2002-04. She then moved to the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs, championing equality and human rights. The House Magazine voted her Minister of the Year in 2005, and Gordon Brown made her Leader of the Lords when he became Prime Minister in 2007. In that post she steered the controversial Lisbon Treaty through the Upper House. When Gordon Brown recalled Peter Mandelson from Brussels in 2008 to help repair the fortunes of the Labour Party, he appointed Catherine Ashton to take Lord Mandelson’s place as Trade Commissioner.

It was a controversial appointment, with MEPs openly questioning whether she had the right CV for that job. But she has proved them wrong by successfully guiding trade negotiations with the US, China and other global powers on behalf of the EU. With quiet efficiency she has maintained a consensus favouring free trade in the face of the worst recession in EU history. Although the Baroness was Trade Commissioner for barely a year, the job brought her into contact with leading politicians internationally, and her experience with arguably the most important external responsibilities of the European Commission has undoubtedly assisted in her new role.

Answering questions from MEPs at her pre-confirmation ‘hearing’ in January, Catherine Ashton stated that ‘The European Union should be a responsible and reliable international partner in a fast-changing world.’ In one sense she faces an easy – or at least a popular – task, since EU citizens want a more active and visible foreign policy for the Union. But just how proactive the member states will let the new High Representative be is still an open question.

Her first priority is to build up the European External Action Service (EEAS), the fledgling European diplomatic corps. She wants it to become ‘an efficient and coherent service that will be the pride of the Union and the envy of the rest of the world.’ She will have to weld the best talent in the Commission’s existing overseas representations together with staff drawn from the 27 member states and the Council Secretariat. There is bound to be a lot of jockeying for the top jobs, but Baroness Ashton has insisted that she wants ‘a balanced service’, a phrase which sounds like code for ‘a fair share for all – not just the big states.’

Baroness Ashton’s next priority is to make sure the EU pulls its full weight in areas of crisis and conflict. On her watch there ought to be no more Bosnia-type fiascos, where the US has to step in to sort out a security problem in the EU’s back yard. But this will be a daunting task, since she can already list the Middle East, the Balkans, the Southern Caucasus, Iran, Afghanistan and Africa among high-risk areas, let alone others – of which Yemen is only the most recent example – lurking in the wings. She says her aim is to ‘enhance efficient cooperation and use of the different EU crisis management tools.’ That is where her increased authority – doing both what Solana could do for defence issues and what the Commission can do for softer solutions – is vital. Taking the example of the EU operation in the Horn of Africa, she argues for a ‘more comprehensive policy’ that goes beyond crisis management to reach into reconstruction, training and development. Similarly, citing Afghanistan, she points beyond military intervention to the EU’s commitment to police training, rebuilding health services infrastructure and improving agriculture practices. After all, the EU is the biggest overseas aid donor in the world.

Her third main priority is to reinforce the EU’s role as a strategic partner with major world powers. This global dialogue – with the US, China, Russia, India, Brazil and Japan – does not detract in her eyes from the importance of solving problems in the European neighbourhood and pursuing common interests with traditional partners in Latin America, Asia and Africa. But it is clear that she sees an important role for the EU alongside the big players in global affairs.

As a former minister in the Justice Ministry it is perhaps not surprising that Baroness Ashton emphasises the Lisbon Treaty’s commitment to human rights. She expects to use the EU’s involvement in the multilateral system ‘to promote our values and our interests – the basic values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.’ In this aim she takes a principled European stance, above the interests of any individual state. Indeed, Baroness Ashton was unanimously appointed, by 27 heads of government, to her role as High Representative of the European Union, and similarly elected by a large majority to her post as Vice-President of the European Commission. In future, when Henry Kissinger’s successors pick up the phone to talk to Europe, the number they dial could well be hers.


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