17th Sep 2019

Ashton's absence from defence gathering raises eyebrows

  • Ms Ashton's job profile requires her to be almost ubiquitous (Photo: Council of European Union)

Defence ministers gathering in Palma de Mallorca on Wednesday (24 February) "regretted" the absence of foreign and security policy chief Catherine Ashton, who canceled her participation at the last minute due to agenda issues.

In her opening remarks, Spanish defence minister Carme Chacon said she "regretted the absence" of Ms Ashton, given the "important" subjects that will be discussed at the meeting, AFP reports.

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Ms Ashton initially intended to join the two-day informal meeting, where defence ministers were set to look at the new possibilities for military co-operation enabled by EU's Lisbon Treaty.

Her spokesman however on Monday announced she had cancelled her participation in order to represent the EU at the inauguration of the new Ukrainian president on Thursday.

It is the second time this month that Ms Ashton has not attended a defence gathering, after having cancelled at the last minute her keynote speech at an event on civilian-military co-operation organised by the European Defence Agency (EDA) on 9 February in Brussels. She then had to travel to Strasbourg for the inauguration vote of the EU commission.

Unlike her predecessor, Javier Solana, Ms Ashton's post is "double-hatted" – as she is also vice-president of the EU executive, apart from representing member states on foreign and security matters.

Defence officials point to the fact that she also wears a "third hat," which is less known – that of head of the EDA, an inter-governmental body aimed at helping member states to spend jointly and more efficiently on military items, such as helicopters or maritime surveillance.

Ms Ashton's previous experience in international trade and her youthful involvement as a member of a disarmament advocacy group contrast with that of Mr Solana, who was Nato's secretary general before being appointed the first foreign policy chief of the EU.

Mr Solana never skipped any meeting of defence ministers, despite traveling 300,000 kilometers a year, diplomats told AFP.

Spain, which holds the EU's rotating presidency for the first half of the year, had made the relaunch of a European defence strategy one of the "fundamental" objectives of its six-month tenure.

The current Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, also attended the Mallorca meeting. His attendance comes after the announced Dutch withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the transatlantic military alliance has its flagship operation.

Airbus deal reached

One concrete outcome of the ministerial meeting so far was that countries behind the Airbus A400M military transport plane clinched a new pact on the €20billion project delayed by almost four years.

"We reached an agreement in principle between the seven nations in the project and EADS," said Ms Chacon, referring to the parent company of A400M manufacturer Airbus. "The Airbus project will be a success for Europe," she claimed, adding that further details would be announced on Thursday.

EADS has been haggling with its seven top customers - Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey - on who should pay for the overruns estimated at €5 billion.

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