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29th Mar 2020

Ashton designates six new 'strategic partners'

  • Ms Ashton talking with the Spanish (c) and French foreign ministers at the summit (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has indicated that Egypt, Israel, Indonesia, Pakistan, Ukraine and South Korea could join the EU's existing list of privileged or "strategic" partners.

Ms Ashton put forward the new names in a powerpoint presentation at a meeting of EU leaders and foreign ministers in Brussels on Thursday (16 September). The roll-call of six countries ended with a "..." to indicate that the club remains open to other up-and-coming powers, an EU diplomatic source said.

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The same powerpoint presentation listed Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and the US as the set of existing strategic partners.

The term "strategic partner" is ill-defined in EU usage. In practice, it means boosting a foreign country's diplomatic status and organising summits and extra minister-level and expert-level meetings. But it can also be taken to mean an alternative to fully-fledged EU membership.

"It's like love - no one can define it. You only know what it is when you experience it," the EU diplomatic contact added.

Another diplomat remarked that the term had been thought up a few years ago "without anyone ever really defining what it meant and whether, indeed, the others regard us as their strategic partners."

Ms Ashton's list has no official status and was put forward as part of a general brainstorming session on how to make the EU more effective on the world stage.

But it has the potential to stir controversy. EU plans to upgrade EU relations with Israel were put on hold after its attack on Gaza in 2009. Asked by reporters after the meeting if Ms Ashton plans to unfreeze the upgrade, she said: "There's no discussions at the moment with Israel."

In the case of Ukraine, inclusion on the list could be taken as a sign that EU accession is not an option. The omission of Turkey could be good news for its EU bid.

Speaking at the post-summit press conference, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy said a rethink of EU foreign policy is needed in the wake of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, where the US clinched a deal with developing countries while the EU was out of the room.

"The perception is that the EU was sidelined," he said. "We have started to realise how the economic strength of developing countries is transforming into real political power."

EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said: "Even the biggest one of the member states is not as big as any one of our strategic partners."

The protocol at the EU's foreign-policy-focused summit highlighted the Lisbon Treaty's lack of clarity on the Van Rompuy-Ashton pecking order.

The treaty says Mr Van Rompuy is to "ensure the external representation of the union ... without prejudice" to Ms Ashton. The baroness did not feature in the official press conference, however. And she hovered on the edge of the EU family photo.

"The power lies where you have the machinery, the troops, the soldiers. And the EU's foreign policy machinery is in the EEAS," an EU official said, referring to Ms Ashton's European External Action Service.

"It's normal that Van Rompuy keeps a small secretariat dealing with foreign policy. She has no problem with that. Lady Ashton has de facto 136 ambassadors at her disposal. She has their mobile phones. There's no comparison."

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