20th Sep 2019

New foreign policy chief asks MEPs for help

  • Catherine Ashton says she has no team yet, just a "piece of paper." (Photo: European Parliament)

Europe's new top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, told MEPs on Wednesday (2 December) she had no full team in place yet and asked them for help and expertise in setting up the bloc's new diplomatic service.

During two hours of "machine-gun" questions from EU parliamentarians dealing with foreign affairs, Ms Ashton often avoided giving any clear answers on issues like the post-war situation in Georgia or the recognition of the newly elected president in Honduras.

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In a candid admission of her unexpected appointment two weeks ago by EU leaders, the British centre-left politician said she did not have an office or a team yet.

"This is not an excuse, it's the reality. It just shows what this means in terms of pulling a team together, working with the rotating presidency, with the upcoming permanent president of the European Council," she explained.

She asked for the MEPs' expertise and help in setting up the new EU diplomatic service, a novelty of the new legal framework – the Lisbon Treaty – which came into force on 1 December.

"I don't mind being guided, please work with me to get it right. It is a big task, I don't say it's a daunting one. But let us create something we are proud of," she said.

The former trade commissioner chose to appear in front of MEPs as early as her second day in office, because of the odd legal situation concerning her appointment, which still needs the approval of the EU legislature.

Once the Lisbon Treaty kicked in, Ms Ashton succeeded top diplomat Javier Solana as co-ordinator of foreign policy positions and actions, as well as security and defence matters among the 27 member states. However, the treaty also makes her a vice-president of the EU executive, taking up the duties of former external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

This allows the European Parliament to have in theory the power to veto her appointment, as she will next month face a hearing in the specialised committee, just as every other commissioner-designate, followed by a plenary vote on the whole Barroso II team.

On the other hand, she stood firm in defending her appointment, contested by several British MEPs who said that there were other more competent figures to take up this high-profile job. "Quiet diplomacy" and consensus-building were her main skills, she said, even if other people had more experience than her.

As to controversies regarding alleged funding from the KGB for the anti-nuclear advocacy group she joined in the early 80s, Ms Ashton said it was "completely reasonable to ask" the question.

She said a long time had passed since and she personally never received any money from any of the countries in the Soviet bloc. The former activist admitted that 38 percent of the funding for that organisation could not be audited, because it was "collected in buckets on the streets."

Foreign policy based at the EU commision

Asked by several MEPs where her office is going to be, in the European Commission or across the street in the member states' secretariat where Mr Solana used to be based, Ms Ashton jokingly replied the commission, because she already knew where the coffee machines were.

"My office will be based in the EU commission building, because I know where it is, how it functions and I don't have to think about the logistics of that. But I will spend a vast majority of time in the council [of ministers] and outside Brussels, out there on the ground," she explained.

German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok, a senior foreign policy figure in the EU legislature, emphasised the need for the new diplomacy apparatus to be under the commission's authority, as it is a "community service" and therefore also subject to parliamentary control.

Defending the 'European way of life' name splits MEPs

European People's Party group leader Manfred Weber defended Ursula von der Leyen's decision to rename a commission portfolio, partly dealing with migration, "protecting the European way of life". He said it means rescuing people in the Mediterranean.

Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing

Hungary was quizzed by EU ministers over its domestic crackdown on media, judges, academia and NGOs. Hungary's minister responded by saying the country had defended "the European way of life" for centuries, and it should be respected.

EU divided on how to protect rule of law

Poland and Hungary have argued that rule of law is purely a domestic matter and the EU should respect legal traditions, but Dutch foreign minister warned backsliding was a worry for all.

Catalonia celebrates national day ahead of trial verdicts

Catalonia celebrated on Wednesday its national day - while awaiting the trial verdict on 12 Catalan separatists, former politicians of Carles Puigdemont's government. That decision is expected for early October.

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