22nd Feb 2020


An unfair critique of Ashton

  • Ashton with Thaci (l) and Dacic: Creating a 'pleasant and practical atmosphere' between enemies is no small feat (Photo:

Andrew Rettman’s article - “What did Ashton really do?” - contains some inaccuracies, and some unfair comment.

Rather than comment superficially on the many superficial judgements in the article I will look instead at one of the important episodes he refers to in detail. I will also comment on one interesting point that he makes in the article.

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No diplomatic success or failure is the work of one person only. This is the case for the Serbia-Kosovo negotiation.

The possibility of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo arose in 2010 when Catherine Ashton had been in office only a few months. The proposal for negotiations came in the form of a draft resolution for the UN General Assembly.

This was agreed by all 27 member states in the Political and Security Committee (PSC). All EU activity in foreign affairs needs a consensus, and the consensus in this resolution was the foundation on which Ashton’s later activity was built.

Agreeing the draft resolution was itself something of a feat; after all, five out of the 27 did not recognise Kosovo as a state. If credit for this is to be allocated a lot should go to the five non-recognisers for finding the flexibility to make common cause in an area of considerable national sensitivity.

The chair of the PSC (Belgium, still under the rotating EU presidency) and all its members also deserve recognition for the patience and persistence they showed through two sessions on this subject, each lasting more than four hours.

After the draft had been agreed Catherine Ashton spent a long evening with the Serb president, Boris Tadic, to persuade him that it was in the best interests of his country to accept the proposed draft. He finally did this the next morning; and, after a series of hiccups of the sort that punctuate most diplomatic dramas, the resolution was adopted by consensus in New York.

Active support from member states was vital throughout the process that followed, all the way to the Brussels agreement in 2013.

The visit by the German chancellor to Belgrade was a significant moment, since visits by heads of government to the Balkans are not common, and it made a big impact.

But support by others, foreign ministers visiting, or talks with Tadic when he travelled, or the daily dialogue conducted by ambassadors on the spot in Belgrade and Pristina - including from non-recognisers - all contributed to a continuous, collective effort.

During her visit to Belgrade Merkel was in fact rather more specific than Rettman’s article implies. She spoke to Tadic, not in generalities about peace, but specifically about the need to deal with the so called “parallel structures” run by Serbia in northern Kosovo.

Dealing with these was a highly political problem in both Serbia and Kosovo, and needed to be handled at a political level. The path to this lay through the “technical dialogue” which I conducted on behalf of the high representative during 2011 and early 2012.

Problems in diplomacy usually have both technical and political dimensions, but in some cases the political dimension is easier to set aside than in others. As is usual in diplomacy we tackled the easier problems first, hoping thereby to build confidence.

The political part of the dialogue began in Brussels from autumn 2012, not with Tadic who had just lost the elections in Serbia, but with the two prime ministers, Ivica Dacic for Serbia and Hashim Thaci for Kosovo.

It was led by Cathy Ashton and focused almost exclusively on the north of Kosovo, an area which provokes strong emotions on both sides.

The dialogue dealt with matters close to the heart of state sovereignty and power: the organisation of police and courts; the representation of minorities; the holding of elections; and the handling of revenues generated through taxes in the area. All are political questions.

The success of these negotiations – which few of those who knew the situation had believed possible – also opened the way to deal with problems left over from the “technical” phase, in particular energy and telecoms. The last of these remains to be completed.

In many other areas too there is still work to be done to implement the agreements reached. In the aftermath of violent conflict progress always needs time and persistence.

A large undertaking like this needs support from many quarters. The OSCE played an outstanding role in ensuring that the elections met expectations; Eulex, the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo, was vital in helping implement the agreements on police and courts as well as many of the agreements from the technical dialogue; the whole of the technical phase of the dialogue was also conducted jointly with DG Enlargement, other parts of the European Commission, for example, DG Hom when we were dealing with issues of border management, were also very helpful.

The EU teams in Belgrade and, especially, Pristina were essential. So was continued support from the member states, there and in Brussels. The support of the United States was often invisible but always indispensable.

Rettman is right to mention the outstanding role played by Fernando Gentilini (and I would add to that, by Anna-Maria Boura too) in Ashton’s Balkans team.

He is wrong however to imply that this somehow reduces her role. And it is simply not true that “the real architects of the deal were German chancellor Angela Merkel and … Fernando Gentilini”.

The architects of the deal were in fact the two prime ministers, Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci. Ashton brought them together for a nervous first meeting in September 2012. Thereafter they met something close to 20 times, often over a meal, usually in a very limited circle.

In this way, over a period of eight months, mutual confidence grew and practical discussions developed on how the problem - which they increasingly understood as a common problem - could be solved.

All those involved in the process understand that Ashton personally played a unique role in bringing the two prime ministers together in this way.

Rettman uses the words “creating a pleasant and practical atmosphere” in a somewhat sneery way. Does he not understand that creating such an atmosphere between political enemies (one a former spokesman of Milosevic, the other a former leader of the KLA) is an extraordinary achievement, and one that suggests unusual talents?

An office with few powers

Its faults notwithstanding, Rettman’s article makes a serious point when he says that the office of high representative is not as strong as it seems. It has few powers: it does not command an army or a large budget. The high representative speaks for the governments of 28 rich countries who represent a respectable share of world trade, aid and defence capabilities.

But she does so only when they agree that she should. They lend their power to the high representative: she does not own it. How much they lend and on what terms depends on the issue concerned, the collective mood in Europe, the political mood in each of their countries, and the degree of confidence that the person of the high representative generates.

It makes sense for EU countries to operate together in many areas, most obviously in dealing with large countries such as China, India, or Russia – and indeed the United States too (when you think about it the same also applies to smaller countries too).

Against this is the logic of the 'prisoners dilemma': Each thinks they can get a better deal on their own, perhaps by undercutting the others, but the result is often that they all do worse. Reinforcing this are domestic politics: governments have a domestic interest in showing that they are active and influential in dealing with foreign countries.

More to be done

They are therefore active nationally: making visits and statements, being photographed with leaders, even if the consequence is that they are less influential than if they had worked together.

Our states are not designed for co-operation. In fact it is a daily miracle that we manage to do it at all. One lesson of the Kosovo story is how much can be achieved when co-operation wins over our natural competitive instincts.

The external service of the EU can play a part in overcoming some of the obstacles to co-operation. By bringing together people from national ministries it can improve confidence that this not just another competitor with its own agenda.

Bringing in the expertise of the commission, and its powers and its budgets provides incentives for a more collective approach from which all can benefit.

As Rettman points out, there is much to be done: the commission’s initial reaction seems to have been to see the EEAS as a competitor – the institutions suffer from the same faults as the member states sometimes. But perhaps commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s new regime of “clusters” may overcome this.

There are many other things to do: cutting layers of bureaucracy and clarifying responsibility in Brussels; creating first class posts abroad; getting rid of some of sillier parts of the financial regulation; making personnel management more flexible and less driven by trade unions, formal and informal.

All this will take time, but it can be done. A first class foreign service is not something that can be created overnight. If this can be taken forward – and Ashton's successor Federica Mogherini will not be able to do it on her own – a good collective vehicle will create incentives for collective action.

The second lesson of the Serbia-Kosovo story is this; brilliant individuals can occasionally work miracles; but teamwork, and the people and organisation that make it happen, are also indispensable.

Robert Cooper is a retired British diplomat who worked as a senior aide to Ashton and her predecessor Javier Solana


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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