Ashton’s Actions

by Shane Fitzgerald

Catherine Ashton has mountains to move. 

Baroness Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has mountains to move in the coming months.

Before formally taking up her corresponding position as Vice President of the European Commission, she has to persuade the European Parliament of her suitability in hearings between January 11 and 19. Although the Parliament cannot reject Commissioners individually, it can reject the entire team. MEPs from all sides of the floor have indicated that Ms Ashton is set for a particularly rigorous grilling.

The Parliament’s vote on the nominated Commission is scheduled for January 26. Assuming the Commission is approved, Ms Ashton’s immediate priority will be to set up the European External Action Service, the new EU diplomatic service and foreign ministry established by the Lisbon Treaty. European leaders expect a detailed proposal on her plans for the service at a Council summit in Brussels on March 25.

Meanwhile the Spanish Presidency gets underway. In their pre-Presidency press conference, President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos went to great pains to emphasise their low-key plans for the first post-Lisbon presidency and their deference to Ms Ashton and to Council President Herman Van Rompuy in their new roles.

Yet the Spanish, surely cognizant of the political capital available to European governments when they are seen to ‘lead’ the EU, have still managed to provide for an ambitious programme of bilateral and multilateral summits over the term of their presidency, including the following:

8 March 2010:   EU-Morocco Summit in Granada

10 April 2010:     EU-Pakistan Summit in Madrid

14 May 2010:     EU-Mexico Summit in Santander

19 May 2010:     EU-Latin America and Carribean Summit in Madrid

5-6 June 2010:  EU-Egypt Summit in Barcelona

7 July 2010:      Summit of the Union for the Mediterranean in Barcelona

One might wonder if such a series of international summits spread out across the country is the best way to signal a new, quieter style of EU presidency and to mark a shift in the EU’s approach to foreign affairs in 2010. Mr Van Rompuy has apparently made it known that once Spain’s presidency finishes, all future summits with third countries are to be held in Brussels regardless of who holds the presidency. Ms Ashton will have to succeed in a series of similar firm decisions against EU players if her new role is to be taken seriously.

Global Europe, a new website devoted to Europe’s role in the world, has asked commentators a question: “will 2010 become the first year of a European foreign policy that deserves its name?” The various responses are ambivalent at best.

Thomas Klau argues that a stronger European foreign policy depends on Ashton first winning and securing clear control over her cabinet and the EEAS, and second proving her mettle in one of her first two crises. David Renniesays that those who supported Ashton’s appointment in the hope that it would help bring Britain to the European security and defence policy (ESDP) table, thus strengthening common European defence, are likely to be disappointed. Jolyon Howorth describes the many hurdles and high expectations which Ms Ashton faces, concluding that ultimately what she must display, in addition to herculean levels of political skill and finesse, is nothing less than strategic vision of a type that will help engineer a peaceful passage towards a new world order. No mean feat.

At a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Scrutiny, Peter Gunning, Director General of the EU Division at the Department of Foreign Affairs, discussed the EEAS from an Irish perspective, confirming that, for Ireland at least, “Participation at the frontline of the EEAS is an extremely attractive and valuable opportunity for … diplomats. It will interact with and will be influential on foreign policy debates in Ireland.”

For the service, and Ms Ashton’s crucial first tenure as its head, to be a success, this initial goodwill and commitment will have to be matched by other member states, not all of whose support will be as straightforward as our own. It must also be sustained.

The fetish of a federal Europe has now largely been discarded. But in a decade of increasing instability, scarcity and competition, the EU needs to be able to forge robust common positions. Coherent, representative and well-judged European foreign policies can come about only as the product of honest debate among member states. And effective delivery of those policies can only begin to happen if the existing European institutions support and make way for Ms Ashton in her new role.