3rd Mar 2024


From Solana to Mogherini: What did Ashton really do?

  • Ashton: a technocrat who served EU countries' small ambitions (Photo:

When world powers and Iran clinched a deal in nuclear talks in Geneva in the small hours of 23 November 2013, US secretary of state John Kerry gave the credit to the EU’s first-ever high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, with a theatrical hug.

She had just chaired four days of meetings on one of the world’s toughest foreign policy dossiers.

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But an Iranian official, speaking to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, gave a less flattering account of her role in the talks: “She knows how to create a pleasant and practical atmosphere … [But] it’s quite clear that there is no genuine political power behind her. She has to go to consult with the representatives of the world powers on every minor detail. Nobody is under the illusion that she has any authority to decide on her own. She is no more than a liaison, and at that she is very effective".

The Iran moment captures Ashton in a nutshell: excessive praise for a technocrat who served big countries’ small ambitions for EU foreign policy.

The nuclear deal came after several months of secret Iranian–US diplomacy and after EU states joined the US in imposing crippling sanctions on Iran.

Ashton mastered the issues and had the stamina and good grace to act as a go-between, but no more.

The banality of her contribution was on show in the cautious, procedural nature of her press briefings and in her spokesmen’s updates: “EU high rep Ashton begins bilateral meeting … E3/EU+3 held internal co-ordination meeting after morning bilats. now further bilats and technical experts meetings”.

Her two other triumphs – building the EU External Action Service (EEAS) and brokering the 2013 Kosovo–Serbia accord – also merit a critical look.

Her defenders say she made the EEAS out of thin air using a few paragraphs in the Lisbon Treaty.

But, in fact, it was her predecessor as EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who, with no treaty mandate, marshalled EU countries to create the bricks which Ashton put together.

Solana, a former Nato secretary general, forged a foreign policy cell in the EU Council and launched the EU’s first peacekeeping missions.

He also formed the Political and Security Committee, the European Defence Agency, the EU Military Committee and IntCen – the EU’s intelligence-sharing unit.

The EEAS that Ashton built comprises three buildings in Brussels – which house 1,500 of the best-paid people in the EU institutions – and 140 “embassies” (former European Commission “delegations”), with 2,000 more staff.

It has no control over its policy. But this isn't just because EU states hold vetoes.

It is also because Ashton didn't update Solana’s 2003 European Security Strategy or draft her own “strategic framework” paper.

The old security strategy discusses Iraq War-type issues, such as weapons of mass destruction, but says nothing of new, Ashton-era threats, such as foreign fighters, Russian resurgence, or cyberwarfare.

The lack of a strategic framework paper – a blueprint for the EEAS’ role in any given crisis – forced Ashton to negotiate division of labour with EU states in an ad hoc way as events unfolded.

The EEAS also has little control over its own budget, which is signed off in its minutiae by the commission.

It is known for its ghastly bureaucracy and for Ashton’s nervous leadership.

The EEAS chief ordained 23 separate reporting lines to her office; her people took at least four days to validate any official document; they took at least a month to clear any spending proposal.

She routinely filed agendas or option papers at the 11th hour before foreign ministers’ meetings because she feared her ideas would be shot down if EU capitals had time to read them.

Her micro-management also caused waste: Her decision to personally interview all of her new ambassadors saw candidates fly to Brussels on 114 separate occasions only to be told that she was too busy to meet them.

When, in April 2013, Ashton unveiled the Kosovo–Serbia accord it prompted the first wave of Kerry-type endorsements. But the real architects of the deal were German chancellor Angela Merkel and an unsung EEAS official – Fernando Gentilini, an Italian in charge of Ashton’s Western Balkans department.

Merkel travelled to Belgrade in 2011, before the Kosovo–Serbia talks began, to deliver the message there would be no EU enlargement without peace.

Merkel’s officials also went back and forth to Serbia three or four times a year in parallel with Ashton’s talks.

For all of her skill in creating a “pleasant and practical atmosphere”, it was Gentilini who hammered out the details of the final compromise.

No political power

The picture that emerges is that Ashton’s critics – who said from the beginning that the 58-year old British politician lacked the executive and foreign relations experience to fill Solana’s shoes – were right.

Iran, the EEAS, and Kosovo aside, Ashton’s five years in the job also coincided with two of the biggest crises in a generation: the Arab upheavals and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

When crises escalate, big EU countries put aside EU institutions because only states with armies have the hard power to project their influence.

But Solana had the personal qualities to give his post what the Iranian official in Haaretz called “political power”.

In 2001, his interventions helped to end Albanian uprisings in Serbia and Macedonia and to persuade the then Israeli leader Ariel Sharon to make a truce with Palestine's Yasser Arafat.

In 2003, a Solana phone call to the then Moldovan leader halted the signature of the Kozak Memorandum – a blueprint for Russian domination.

The next year he was at the roundtable in Kiev negotiating former president Leonid Kuchma’s surrender to Viktor Yushchenko, the country's first post-Orange Revolution leader.

By contrast, Ashton failed to make a mark.

She tried to intervene on the Arab-Israeli conflict, on Libya, and on Egypt.

She decided in her first days in office that her EU legacy would be a breakthrough in the Middle East Peace Process. But she shelved the project when it became clear this is a US domain.

When EU countries met in the run-up to Western air strikes on Libya in 2011, Ashton, who disliked the idea, instructed her spokesman to tell media that France and the UK were isolated.

But British PM David Cameron, who got wind of it, scolded her in front of EU leaders, and Ashton later fired her man for his “rogue briefing” to save face.

She met more times with Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, and his successor Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, than any other foreign statesman.

But EU diplomats who attended her debriefings say they sounded as hollow as the EEAS updates on Iran. “She told us she met with this or that person, or that the meeting lasted this or that amount of time, but she brought nothing new to the discussion”, a diplomat on the EU Council’s Mashreq/Maghreb Working Party told EUobserver in 2013.

Ashton left Ukraine to the EU's former neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fule.

When events began heating up late last year, she travelled to Kiev. But when sniper killings on the Maidan in February threatened to provoke a bloodbath, three EU foreign ministers pushed Ashton aside to hold talks with the then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

When Russia subsequently invaded Ukraine, Ashton’s role shrank further still to reading out ministers’ conclusions in Brussels.

No hard power

Meanwhile, if the EU lacks hard power, Ashton did nothing with the Lisbon clause on “the progressive framing of a common defence policy that might lead to a common defence”.

France, Germany, and the UK have little genuine interest in creating EU military capabilities alongside Nato.

Their uninterest was matched by that of Ashton, a former anti-nuclear campaigner, who felt more at home with humanitarian and civilian initiatives.

On a day-to-day level, she neglected EU defence ministers, the more than 200 seconded officers in the EU military staff, and IntCen.

The EEAS also earned a reputation for security lapses: Her staff walked from building to building with classified files in their bags, breaking protocol, for lack of secure IT systems.

They signed huge private security contracts, as in Afghanistan, with dodgy firms which were unable to do the job.

Ashton’s uninterest was also visible at the highest level.

EU leaders in December 2013 tasked her with making plans for “pooling and sharing” military resources.

But when Solana, who is now head of Madariaga, a Spanish foundation, asked delegates at the 2014 Munich Security Conference if there had been any follow-up, no one replied. “I take your silence as my response”, he said.

Ashton’s appointment, in 2009, was sold as an answer to the apocryphal question: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”. But another question is: Do people listen if Europe calls?

Her spokesmen say she avoided the press limelight out of modesty. But her decision to take up the EU role despite her unsuitability was an act of vanity.

She should have said: “Thanks, but no thanks”.

Mogherini: Another vacuum?

The same might be said of Italy’s Federica Mogherini, who was chosen as Ashton’s successor in August.

With even less experience than Ashton, she is a further step down from Solana.

Mogherini’s first decision in the run-up to her formal appointment was to say she would move her office from the EEAS building back to the commission HQ, leaving behind an empty space.

The move reflects Italy's ambition to have its commissioner closer to the centre of power in the EU capital.

It reflects the fragility and dependency of the EU diplomatic corps five years after its creation.

The empty office might also be a symbol of another vacuum at the top.

A version of this text was first published by Rusi, a London-based defence think tank

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