Sunday

21st Apr 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 18 year's of archives. 30 days 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."

Lobby register transparency talks collapse

Efforts to set up a better transparency register for lobbyists have collapsed after two years of talks. The impasse revolves around the European Commission's insistence that the register also become mandatory for the European Parliament and Council.

Exclusive

EU bodies dodge questions on secret VW loan report

The European Anti-Fraud Office (Olaf) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) have refused to answer detailed questions about the demand from the European Ombudsman to publish an Olaf report on a €400m EIB loan Volkswagen Group (VW) received through deception.

Exclusive

EIB 'maladministration' verdict over VW fraud report

EUobserver should have been granted access to a fraud investigation into a €400m EU loan to Volkswagen Group (VW), and recommendations on how to avoid future misuse, the European Ombudsman has concluded.

MEPs excluded from deciding new EU labour agency HQ

A ministerial vote will determine the seat of the new European Labour Authority - leaving MEPs excluded from the selection process. Infamously, the new HQs for the European Medicines Agency and European Banking Authority were only decided by drawing lots.

Magazine

The changing of the guards in the EU in 2019

The four most powerful EU institutions - Commission, Parliament, Council and Central Bank will all have new leaders in the coming ten months. Here is an overview.

Magazine

Explained: What is the European Parliament?

While domestic political parties often use the European Parliament as a dumping ground for unwanted politicians - and a majority of citizens don't bother to vote - the parliament, over the years, has become a dominant force in the EU.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  2. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  3. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  4. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  9. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  10. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan

Latest News

  1. Romania drafts EU code on NGO migrant rescues
  2. Bulgaria, Hungary, and Malta shamed on press unfreedom
  3. EU drafts $20bn US sanctions list in aviation dispute
  4. Brunei defends stoning to death of gay men in EU letter
  5. US Democrats side with Ireland on Brexit
  6. Wifi or 5G to connect EU cars? MEPs weigh in
  7. How Brexit may harm the new EU parliament
  8. EU parliament backs whistleblower law

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  6. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  7. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  9. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  12. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us