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29th Mar 2020

Ashton names EU foreign-service priorities at low-key launch event

  • Ashton showed pictures of herself with children in earthquake-struck Haiti in a 'touching' and 'surprising' speech (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Relations with the US and China, climate change, poverty eradication, crisis management and counter-terrorism are to be the top priorities of the EU's new diplomatic corps, EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton told her stable of 136 ambassadors at a behind-closed-doors meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (1 December).

The speech, given at a regular annual gathering of EU envoys in the European Commission headquarters, doubled as a low-key launch ceremony for the European External Action Service (EEAS), which formally began life the same day.

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A source familiar with the discussions at the event told EUobsever: "She surprised everyone with a very touching presentation about her personal journey over the past 10 months. She spoke without notes and she showed pictures of herself embracing a child in Haiti, of rural poverty in China."

"She went straight to the key issues: How we can ensure that the EU 28 [the 27 member states and the EEAS] can send out one message; the challenges we face from climate change; improving the relationship with the US, which is for her clearly the EU's most important relationship; then strategic partners, especially China, how important it is to try to shape one EU agenda on China."

"There was also a wake up call on resources - that we have to do more with less. That we live in extraordinary times and the EEAS cannot be a stranger to financial difficulties."

The contact said that there was no official mention of the WikiLeaks affair but the issue did come up in the Ashton question-and-answer session: "She noted that the cables show how the US is actually working in partnership with other countries, how they prove the conspiracy theorists wrong."

Another source who was present at the event said: "Gender balance came up. Given that it was a room dominated by men, they were happy that Cathy was starting to improve things in this area."

The sessions, which began on Wednesday and will last until 5pm Brussels time on Friday, also saw speeches by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, European Parliment head Jerzy Buzek and two of Ms Ashton's top managers - French EEAS secretary general Pierre Vimont and Irish EEAS administration chief David O'Sullivan. EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy is to speak on Friday, along with Ms Ashton's two deputy secretary generals, Helga Schmid and Maciej Popowski. Commissioners Kristalina Georgieva (aid), Karl de Gucht (trade) and Stefan Fuele (enlargement) are also in the line-up.

"It's a pity they did not invite the press. It's a humble launch for the EEAS, maybe too humble," an EU diplomat said.

Mr Barroso' speech urged the ambassadors to be "more assertive" in "co-shaping" the global agenda. Mr Buzek stressed the importance of EU diplomats' democratic "accountability" and the value of EU parliament committee hearings for new EEAS appointees. Mr Vimont spoke of the need to merge the different "cultures" of member states, the European Council and the commission inside the service. Mr O'Sullivan's catchphrase was that the EEAS will stamp the union's "footprint" on the world.

"There is a very exciting atmosphere. We feel like we are the builders of the new foreign service of the EU. But we have to manage expectations of what can be achieved," the diplomat added.

In a related development, Ms Ashton's office on Thursday named 57-year-old Italian crisis management specialist Agostino Miozzo as her right-hand-man in charge of civilian and military crisis-response planning. The post reports directly to Ms Ashton and stands above the still-to-be-named head of the EU's intelligence-sharing bureau, the Joint Situation Centre.

Dr Miozzi has since 2002 headed up the voluntary and international relations office in the Italian Civil Protection Department and impressed Ms Ashton when the two met in earthquake-struck Haiti earlier this year.

Ms Ashton on Thursday also appointed British EU official Robert Cooper, a senior foreign policy advisor to her predecessor, Javier Solana, and a specialist on Iran and the Western Balkans, to be an EEAS "counsellor."

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