Saturday

7th Dec 2019

EU's quiet diplomat steps aside after 10 years

EU foreign relations chief Javier Solana, who retires this week, will be remembered as a master of quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. But campaigners say he should have done more to put human rights at the forefront of his work.

The Spanish politician will on Tuesday (1 December) step aside to make way for the union's first "foreign minister" as the Lisbon Treaty enters into force. The British official to take up the new post, Catherine Ashton, will have a tough act to follow.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

  • The Spanish politician (r) will step aside on Tuesday after 10 years in the post (Photo: kremlin.ru)

In his 10 years in the job Mr Solana has transformed the EU's common foreign and security policy from words on paper into a Brussels-based body of some 800 military experts and diplomats who co-ordinate the work of 23 crisis relief missions in hotspots such as the Gulf of Aden and Kosovo.

He has personally acted as the EU's spokesman and negotiator in around 600 foreign delegations, clocking up over 2.6 million air miles on the way.

The numbers tell just a small part of the story: With limited support from EU states, Mr Solana has relied on his personal charisma, quick-wittedness and vim to win the trust of leaders in Balkan, post-Soviet and Middle Eastern countries.

The 67-year-old sleeps five hours a night and still goes running in Brussels' Parc de Cinquantenaire. When he retires, he will continue to help out in international mediation and to "travel a lot," his office said.

Mr Solana's achievements are often silent or emerge in anecdotes years later. In 2001, following the bombing of the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv, he persuaded the then Israeli leader Ariel Sharon to put off a military response long enough to hammer out a new truce with Palestine's Yasser Arafat.

In 2003, Mr Solana's last-minute call to Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin saw him refuse to sign a Russian peace plan, the so-called Kozak Memorandum, which could have led to decades of Russian domination. "[Russian prime minister] Mr Putin's jet was already warming up on the runway when we got the news," Russia's ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, recalled.

"I don't think anybody could have done a better job under the circumstances. He made Europe visible around the world without anybody feeling threatened," former EU commissioner Chris Patten told EUobserver. "The Middle East will miss him. He was a unique statesman," left-wing Israeli politician and peace negotiator, Yossi Beilin, said.

In a point for Ms Ashton to take note of, Mr Solana often had to work against the ill will of member states.

Banana skins

"EU countries liked to slip him banana skins – to send him into situations where they knew there was nothing that could be achieved," Mr Solana's former Middle East security advisor, Alastair Crooke, told this website. "On other occasions, he was sent into the corridor when the foreign minister from the [rotating] EU presidency held a one-to-one. He was relegated to a note-taker, called in for the photo op and the handshake. It wasn't good for his prestige."

The Spaniard's long career has not been without its gaffes.

At the signing of a historic peace accord between Turkey and Armenia in October, Mr Solana fondly slapped the Armenian foreign minister, Edward Nalbandian, around the jowels, causing national affront. The clip is still doing the rounds on YouTube.

The veil of confidentiality around his meetings has sometimes hidden unflattering moments from view.

With Mr Solana often credited for helping broker the round table agreement in Ukraine in December 2004, which saw the country's pre-revolution president, Leonid Kuchma, peacefully stand down, one Ukrainian diplomat present at the meeting, Kostyantyn Gryschenko, gave EUobserver a different account:

"Mr Solana and his interpreter couldn't keep up with the fast, colloquial Russian being spoken round the table, so they sat there silent most of the time. In the end it was [former Polish leader] Kwasniewski, who can speak Russian, who took Kuchma aside and said 'Leonid, Leonid. There is life after the presidency. Just look at me.'"

Too much realism

On a more serious note, human rights campaigners do not blame Mr Solana for agreeing to the bombing of Serbia in 1999 in his time as Nato chief. They are also ready to put aside his support of the Iraq war in 2003 as an error based on his personal friendship with US general Colin Powell.

But he has drawn flak for concentrating on conflict resolution in Europe and the Middle East at the expense of human rights problems in Russia and China and for what some see as his excessive pragmatism in the face of power.

"The general picture is one where human rights took a back seat," Dick Oosting, the former Brussels director of Amnesty International, said.

Human Rights Watch advocate Lotte Leicht recalled that in January 2005 Mr Solana torpedoed an EU campaign for the UN to refer Sudan to the International Criminal Court in the Hague because he did not believe the US would back the move.

Mr Solana comes across as a "thoroughly decent man" with a "strong moral vision" when you speak with him in private, Ms Lotte said. He may deliver a tough message in behind-closed-doors talks with world leaders, for all we know, she added. But he has not put human rights at the heart of the EU's identity in a public way.

"In terms of quiet diplomacy he has probably performed quite well. But in terms of public diplomacy he has not," Ms Lotte said. "It's a missed opportunity."

Von der Leyen warns on EU budget cuts

The new EU Commission president will tell EU leaders next week that they need to put money behind their pledges for border protection, defence policy and fighting climate change.

Analysis

Von der Leyen team voted in by MEPs - amid warnings

The first female commission president and her (almost) gender-balanced team can take office on 1 December. Despite a large majority of MEPs backing the new commission, many warned that their support was not a "blank cheque".

This is the (finally) approved European Commission

MEPs gave the green light to the entire new European Commission during the plenary session in Strasbourg - but with the abstention of the Greens and a rejection by the leftist group GUE/NGL.

EU gears up for post-Brexit renovation

Both EU member states and the parliament want to be ready in January with an agreement on how to involve citizens in a serious attempt to rethink the future of the EU. But institutional issues would come first.

News in Brief

  1. Greece denies access to fair asylum process, report says
  2. Report: Self-regulation of social media 'not working'
  3. Turkey: Greek expulsion of Libyan envoy 'outrageous'
  4. Merkel coalition may survive, says new SPD co-leader
  5. Von der Leyen Ethiopia visit a 'political statement'
  6. Over 5,500 scientists ask EU to protect freshwater life
  7. Iran defies EU and UN on ballistic missiles
  8. Committee of the Regions: bigger budget for Green Deal

This is the (finally) approved European Commission

MEPs gave the green light to the entire new European Commission during the plenary session in Strasbourg - but with the abstention of the Greens and a rejection by the leftist group GUE/NGL.

Magazine

Welcome to the EU engine room

Welcome to the EU engine room: the European Parliament (EP's) 22 committees, which churn out hundreds of new laws and non-binding reports each year and which keep an eye on other European institutions.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. Russia makes big promises to Arctic peoples on expansion
  2. UK election plus EU summit in focus This WEEK
  3. Migrants paying to get detained in Libyan centres
  4. Searching for solidarity in EU asylum policy
  5. Will Michel lead on lobbying transparency at Council?
  6. Blood from stone: What did British PR firm do for Malta?
  7. EU Commission defends Eurobarometer methodology
  8. Timmermans warns on cost of inaction on climate

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us