20th Mar 2018

Ashton under fire for not going to Haiti

  • Ashton's spokesman said the UN had told her to stay away (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has come under fire from centre-right and Green politicians in the European Parliament for not visiting the earthquake-devastated Haiti.

The head of the centre-right group in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul, said that the fact that Mrs Ashton was not present while her US counterpart Hillary Clinton travelled to the Caribbean island over the weekend was "regrettable."

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"Just about everybody was in Haiti at the moment when these people are suffering, and Europe was not present," he said. "If it would have been in our hands, we would have sent someone."

The comments were made in a press conference on Tuesday morning (19 January) following the resignation of the centre-right Bulgarian commission nominee, Rumiana Jeleva, after criticism about her suitability for the job as development commissioner.

The centre-left Ms Ashton, who is also to be a vice-president of the European Commission, went through her hearing last week. A novice in the world of diplomacy and foreign affairs, she was widely seen as having performed no better than adequately.

To date, MEPs on the right have held their fire on Ms Ashton, who has the extra backing of the 27 EU countries, which unanimously appointed her to be the union's high representative for foreign affairs. The member states' deal was a careful compromise between left and right which saw the post of President of the European Council, the EU's other main external actor, given to a centre-right politician.

Denying that party politics played a role in his criticism, Mr Daul said: "Of course, we are not going to be calling Ms Ashton into question for this reason."

His attack on Mrs Ashton was later backed up by the leader of the Greens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

"I am very sceptical about Lady Ashton," said the French politician. "Her performance vis-a-vis the situation in Haiti has been insufficient and I think that what Mr Daul said in his communication today was not wrong."

Mrs Ashton's job means that she is supposed to be the public face of the EU in the case of an international crisis and to oversee the bloc's response. On Monday, the EU pledged over €400 million in aid to Haiti.

Mr Cohn-Bendit went on: "[US secretary of state] Clinton found it possible to go to Haiti, and I think that the European Union has to be there on the spot. Not just in the sidelines. And if I was the high representative faced with a disaster of this scope, I'd get on the first plane and then come back and tell the Europeans what we should be doing. I think that is the basic minimum."

Keeping airspace free

Ms Ashton's spokesman told EUobserver that the foreign policy chief had deliberated going to Haiti but on the "explicit advice of the UN" decided not to so that she "would not be blocking airspace at this point in time."

The spokesperson noted that Ms Ashton, who also defended her actions before parliament on the issue on Tuesday, "has been working all weekend on Haiti."

Haiti, which suffered a huge earthquake last Tuesday which has killed up to 200,000 people and left around 1.5 million homeless, has tested the EU's new foreign policy set up.

Ms Ashton, who formally took up her duties on 1 December after a surprise nomination, has had to rush to adjust to her new job, whose duties include chairing the monthly meetings of EU foreign ministers and setting up a new EU diplomatic service.

The new president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, also involved himself with the Haiti issue on Tuesday.

The EU chief while on a visit to London proposed that countries create a "humanitarian rapid reaction force" that could be deployed in such a crisis in future. "We have to reflect about a better instrument for reaction," he said, the BBC reports.

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