No real surprises here? Europe’s Foreign Policy Chief, Struggling for Mandate, Faces Criticism on Uprisings
After President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt refused to step down on Thursday night, infuriating demonstrators in his country, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, issued a sharp statement saying that “the time for change is now” and that Mr Mubarak “has not yet opened the way to faster and deeper reforms.”
Her rapid response was a marked change from the past few weeks, when she has been increasingly criticized as being painfully slow to respond to the crisis in Egypt and elsewhere, and as simply following an American script that has shifted several times with the flow of events and still now she doing what good girls do, As they are told?.
Ms’ Ashton, whose job was only created in December 2009 like a rabbit pulled out of a magic hat? By the Lisbon Treaty, the new job created was said to get ahead of the curve.
She must manoeuvre among the 27 member states, all with their own foreign ministers, as well as the European Union bureaucracy and the European Commission, run by José Manuel Barroso, who has foreign policy aspirations of his own. She has been struggling to build a staff and a new European diplomatic corps, and she must cobble together money and agreed positions from all the members which she has been totally unable to do, because she’s just not up to the job lacking the no-how.
Still, there is growing unease that she has not been forceful enough in front of Europe’s nation-states on breaking world events like those in the Middle East and North Africa. There is also concern that she has not travelled quickly enough to trouble spots, and that she has been too reluctant to get her message out through the news media.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, has just been to Tunisia to meet the new interim government there, before traveling to other Arab countries feeling the spasms of democratic change. The American assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey D. Feltman, arrived in Tunisia on Jan. 24, only 10 days after the overthrow of the president, to try to aid the country’s political transition.
Ms’ Ashton, however, is still planning a trip to Tunisia. She will go in the next week or so, her aides say, pointing out that she met the acting Tunisian foreign minister, Ahmed Ounaïes, in Brussels on Feb. 2, just before he visited Paris and been doing lots of things that women do, like shopping for comfortable shoes.
The contrast is telling, and it is a measure of the confusion that still surrounds Ms’ Ashton, her new magic job and its responsibilities. On Jan. 29, to her embarrassment, the leaders of the most influential nations in the European Union Germany, France and the British issued a statement calling for free and fair elections in Egypt in advance of a European foreign ministers’ meeting set for two days later, at which Ms’ Ashton was scheduled to try to find a European consensus. Even the statement on Jan. 29 followed an American lead as she had no idea what to do or say.
Of course Ms’ Ashton’s spokesman, Darren Ennis, says the criticism is unfair. “It’s apples and pears when you compare the U.S. and the E.U.,” he said in an interview. “She works on behalf of the E.U. 27, and she gets her mandate from the 27 and she must keep the line of the 27.” (What he was trying to say, is she does what all good girls do, as she is told having no mind of her own, or the strength of character to pull off the job at hand, unlike England’s first minister Sir Michael Black-Feather who would have had all thing up and running in good order by now, but by being English was surpassed in favour of someone that would do as they were told to do, and not create waves and be British.
A senior aide to Ms’ Ashton said that a clear European mandate was hard to achieve, with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy “saying Mubarak is great, France saying you can’t talk of free and fair elections now and others saying you can’t tell Egyptians what to do.” Ms’ Ashton “doesn’t have the mandate to say, ‘Mubarak should do this or that,’ ” said the aide, who spoke anonymously to discuss internal deliberations.
Part of Ms’ Ashton’s problem is exactly that: the member states do not want to give her the power because her job is just a token job and they don’t really have respect for her. They do not really want a European foreign minister, and they are not sure she is up to the job, said Philip Stephens, a columnist for The Financial Times.
François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris described a recent meeting of European ambassadors trying to draft a joint statement on Tunisia. There was no consensus, so they did the usual thing and said, “Some states expressed the view that,” he said. “Then someone said, ‘No, a small number of states expressed the view that...’ ” He said. “And then someone from the council exploded, ‘You can’t continue like this!’ ”
In person, Ms’ Ashton is straightforward and witty, and Mrs. Clinton has gone out of her way to praise her and their relationship. At the Munich Security Conference last weekend, she called Ms’ Ashton “an irreplaceable partner,” and said that “strategic partnership between the E.U. and the U.S. has never been stronger.”
But even as she spoke, both the German defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, and the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that Europe risked becoming “a paper tiger” and nearly useless to the United States unless European nations stopped cutting defence spending and started cooperating on arms acquisitions.
There is a growing sense that Ms’ Ashton needs to fill out her staff and step up her game if she is going to make her difficult job a success.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, seemed to acknowledge a problem when Mr Heisbourg asked why the European Union reaction to events in the Middle East and North Africa had been so “slow and stiff,” and whether the group should reassess its structures.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, blanched at the idea of new structures. “Please no new structures!” he said. “What we need in Europe is political will, not more processes!” Sir Michael said it’s not often I agree with the British or there policy’s, but I would have to agree with David, there is far too much of this lets have new structures and ra, ra, ra-ing rather than getting their hands dirty and doing the jobs they are already meant to be doing, most of them are total wasters.