20th Jan 2022

Ashton sets out vision for EU foreign policy

  • Catherine Ashton took over as EU foreign policy chief on 1 December (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday (10 March) sought to draw a line under her stormy first 100 days in office by giving a wide-ranging speech to MEPs outlining her vision for future European foreign policy.

The keenly-anticipated address emphasized the importance of the EU pulling together on foreign policy or facing the alternative of other powers - notably Asian powers - taking a leading role in world affairs instead.

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"In the last 60 years, our share of global GDP has shrunk from 28 percent to 21 percent. The economies of China, India and others are racing ahead at 10 percent per year. Economic weight is translating into political clout and self-confidence.

If we pull together we can safeguard our interests. If not, others will make decisions for us," she said.

Her speech made much of the EU's "comprehensive" strategy for the Western Balkans as well as its approach to Georgia following its brief war with russia in 2008 as examples of the EU working at its best.

"Our wider international credibility depends on getting our neighbourhood right," Ms Ashton said, noting that the Western Balkans is "more than anywhere else" an area where the EU "cannot afford to fail."

In an apparent attempt to diffuse criticism that she has a typically British coolness toward developing EU defence policy, Ms Ashton opened the door to a discussion on setting up a permanent EU military headquarters and proposed a more formal setting for meetings of EU defence ministers.

Diplomatic service

Referring to the nascent diplomatic service, which she is to set up and run, Ms Ashton acknowledged the difficulty of the task, which has pitted its three future components - the commission, member states and the EU Council secretariat - against one another.

"Any time you create something new, there will be resistance. Some prefer to minimise perceived losses rather than maximise collective gains. I see it differently," she noted

The British peer made an oblique reference to the difficulties she has faced since taking over as top diplomat three months ago: "People have to adjust their mental maps and institutions have to find their new place. Doing so is messy and complicated."

As the first foreign policy chief under the EU's Lisbon Treaty and a foreign policy novice at a personal level, Ms Ashton has often fallen victim to the high expectations people had of the post, aspects of which were previously held by three people. In addition, being both vice-president of the European Commission and answerable to the foreign policy wishes of member states has left her exposed to attacks from vested interests in both camps.

Her delivery of the speech and her subsequent responses to MEPs' questions were notably more assured than when she last appeared before the house. She also threw a few punches of her own after having being publicly criticised by both EU foreign ministers and defence ministers in the past few weeks.

Ms Ashton urged member states to remember "why European leaders negotiated the Treaty in the first place," and reprimanded the union for its tendency to jaw-jaw about foreign policy rather than to act:

"The answer to a problem cannot be a paper or a meeting. If you want results, you have to act - and sometimes take risks. And yes, there is a tendency in Europe to put process ahead of outcomes."

MEPs for the most part pledged their support. But several deputies urged her to fight any trend toward intergovernmentalism, especially when it comes to the set-up of the diplomatic service.

"We are looking forward to working with you," said German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok. Irish socialist MEP Proinsias de Rossa said her speech had "vision and substance."

British Liberal MEP Andrew Duff sounded the alarm about the "breakdown of trust" between the commission and member states however, saying the rift should not be accepted.

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