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23rd Feb 2020

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.

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  • 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."

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