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New EU Foreign-Policy Chief Promises Solutions For 'Jigsaw Puzzle' Of Relations

January 11, 2010
By Ahto Lobjakas

BRUSSELS -- The European Union's new high representative for foreign policy has appeared before the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee for her confirmation hearing and managed to avoid controversy.

Catherine Ashton is a former EU trade commissioner with no direct foreign-policy experience and was a surprise pick for the post last November by EU leaders seeking compromise candidates for new top jobs created by the Lisbon Treaty

During her three-hour-long questioning by EU members of parliament on January 11, Ashton focused on the positives, promising a "stronger and more credible" EU role in the world during her tenure.

Ashton's account of the global challenges faced by the bloc, outlined during her opening remarks, was carefully tailored to avoid giving offense to anyone.

"Like many of you, I'm convinced there is a clear call inside the European Union and around the world for greater European engagement to promote peace, to protect the vulnerable, to fight poverty and to address the many challenges of our time," Ashton said.

"We have to answer this call combining leadership with partnership, defending our values and promoting our interests, listening to what our partners say, and making sure that when we speak our voice is heard."

Although her lack of experience has been questioned by critics, Ashton remained unruffled throughout the hearing. A member of Britain's ruling Labour Party, she good-naturedly deflected the few sharp attacks launched at her by British Conservatives and Euroskeptics.

And as she did during an earlier appearance at the European Parliament in December, Ashton refused to apologize for her youthful involvement in the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which is suspected of receiving Soviet funds in the 1970s and 1980s.

Pleasing All Parties

Overall, Ashton was given a relatively easy time by the committee -- reflecting the satisfaction of all major political groups in the European Parliament with how top political appointments have been distributed in the past months.

Commenting on EU policy objectives, Ashton limited herself to well-rehearsed EU views. She called for a more effective partnership with the United States and a stronger relationship with Russia, urged a two-state solution for the Middle Eastern conflict, regretted Iran's rejection of international supervision of its nuclear program, and promised more EU engagement in Afghanistan.

Ashton also announced a flurry of visits designed to familiarize her with her main counterparts across the world. She said she will soon travel to Washington for talks with the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with visits to Beijing and Moscow to follow shortly thereafter.

In December, Ashton attended a NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels. She will soon travel to the Middle East, as well as participate in international summits on Afghanistan and Yemen at the end of the month.

Ashton has a "double-hatted" job description -- she is simultaneously a representative of the EU's member states and a vice president of the bloc's executive arm, the European Commission. That means she will have to perform an intricate balancing act.

EU member states retain full sovereignty on foreign-policy issues and Ashton's brief does not extend to policy making. Her appointment will thus have no substantive effect on common EU positions on Russia, the Balkans, or the Middle East, among other issues.

Within the European Commission, which carries out the bloc's foreign policy, Ashton will provide strategic direction to Enlargement and Neighborhood Commissioner Stefan Fuele, Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, and Rumiana Jeleva, who will lead humanitarian aid and crisis response.

Ashton said much of her day-to-day work will consist of putting into practice of the EU's gospel of "multilateralism" -- treating as equals and forging direct links with selected established and emerging world powers.

"We need effective partnerships with the United States, China, and Russia, but also with Turkey, Japan, Canada, India, Brazil, and South Africa; with the UN, with the African Union and many others," she said. "Nurturing these partnerships will be a big part of my day-to-day work."

Lack Of Experience

Ashton's lack of practical foreign-policy experience seemed to trip her up when questions arose about her specific intentions in the new post.

After several EU deputies challenged her comment that she will pursue "different approaches" to human rights problems in different non-EU countries, Ashton had to admit that human rights are universal, even if cultural differences and traditions necessitate different approaches among nations.

Time and again, Ashton said she considers her main objective to "get results" for the EU.

"It's finding the appropriate ways of raising issues, finding the appropriate mechanisms we want is what will get us the results that we want," she said. "That's what I really want to focus on."

Ashton was also forced to explain her repeatedly expressed preference for "quiet diplomacy."

She said she meant that although she herself is "not quiet necessarily," she does think that "loud" or highly public diplomacy tends to be less effective.

Ashton's grasp on the substance of many of the issues appeared to be tenuous at best. Implicitly admitting this, she said she is only "beginning to sketch out where we are, what the conflicts are, what we can do." Ashton said the EU is facing a "jigsaw puzzle" of challenges.

Looking East

Addressing the EU's relations with its eastern neighbors, Ashton limited herself to short-term goals and issues, avoiding comments on strategy or the neighbors' longer-terms prospects.

Ashton said the EU's future policy choices will depend heavily on developments in the bloc's partner countries, and she singled out Ukraine's impending presidential election, saying that "we don't know, and it's interesting that we don't know who's going to win, I think it's actually quite significant that in this country we don't know, perhaps that's a really strong indicator of democracy at work."

The EU's "real concerns," Ashton said, must be addressed after the elections and cannot be "preempted" before discussions with the country's new leadership.

Ashton said Ukraine's relationship with Russia will play a major role in its future, and said the same is true in Belarus and Georgia.

Asked about Russia itself, the new EU foreign policy chief said the EU needs a "strong relationship" with the country, coupled with an energy strategy aimed at diversifying delivery routes and supply sources. Russia, Ashton said, must be pressed to view energy as an economic, not a political issue.

Sidestepping requests to specify her intentions, Ashton said she would "build on the past" when developing relations with Russia, "reviewing what works and what doesn't."


Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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