Sunday

17th Nov 2019

Ashton hits back at Kouchner over Middle East talks

  • Ms Ashton and mr Kouchner have exchanged barbed letters over the Middle East issue (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has defended her plan to go to China instead of to Thursday's (2 September) Middle East peace talks following criticism by French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner.

In a detailed statement issued over the weekend, her spokesman said the Beijing trip is "very important" due to upcoming discussions by EU leaders on a strategic partnership with the Asian country and in order to build personal relations with her Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo.

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It noted that the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, supports her decision and indicated that Mr Kouchner's remarks show more concern for the EU's image than for the substance of the Middle East peace process.

"Ms Ashton was personally invited by Senator Mitchell to the dinner ahead of the talks in Washington, but had to decline for this reason and Senator Mitchell fully understood. She also looked at the possibility of flying from China, but the key meetings in China clash with the Sept 2 date [of the dinner]," the communique said.

"The appearance of [Ms Ashton] at the dinner would have no substantial influence on the talks. For [Ms Ashton] and for the EU as a whole, the focus is on a successful outcome of the talks, particularly the first round and the focus should not be on the choreography or who goes to Washington or not."

The remarks come after Mr Kouchner last week sent a letter to Brussels complaining that the EU, as the largest aid donor to the Palestinian Authority and as a member of the Quartet, the international body dealing with the peace process, should participate in the high-profile event.

Speaking at a regular gathering of France's 180 ambassadors in Paris on Friday, he added: "It would be a shame if there was no European representation."

His speech to the top diplomats also said: "The difficult, but resolute and patient implementation of the instruments foreseen by the Lisbon Treaty will help us to develop a more coherent, responsive and visible European foreign policy."

Mr Kouchner's attack on Ms Ashton follows a similar one earlier this year by the French junior minister for EU affairs, Pierre Lellouche, who took her to task for lack of EU "visibility" on Haiti earthquake relief.

An EU official told this website that Mr Kouchner's outspokenness is linked to infighting in Paris.

French media last week quoted French diplomats as saying that Mr Kouchner is a "weak" minister compared to his predecessors, such as Alain Juppe and Hubert Vedrine. Mr Juppe is being talked about as a replacement for Mr Kouchner in a potential cabinet reshuffle.

French diplomacy is currently on the back foot due to the hostile international reaction to the country's en bloc deportation of Roma.

A UN branch, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in a resolution last week said the policy smacks of "racism" and "xenophobia" and urged Paris to tone down "political speeches of a discriminatory nature."

"We do not accept the caricature," Mr Kouchner said at Friday's ambassadorial gathering. "The President of the Republic has never stigmatised a minority on the basis of its origin ... I count on you to dispel these misunderstandings."

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