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14th Aug 2022

Belgian minister publicly attacks EU foreign relations chief

  • Vancekere: 'Belgium will search for partners in other countries' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Characterised by "silence" on important foreign policy issues, with little long-term strategy and poor management of her agenda - Belgium's foreign minister has painted a damning picture of EU high representative Catherine Ashton.

British, centre-left and female, Ashton's surprise appointment to the EU's top foreign policy post in late 2009 has on many occasions been characterised as an unattractive European stitch-up, but Steven Vanackere's criticism of the EU foreign relations chief on Wednesday (4 May) is the first dressing down handed out by a senior official in public.

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While French President Nicolas Sarkozy is known to be among those who have behind closed doors criticised the former EU trade commissioner's grasp of foreign policy, Vanackere and the recent Belgian EU presidency had up till now studiously supported Ashton as the Union's voice in the area.

But in an interview with Belgian daily Le Soir, the former Ashton ally said she has failed over the past year to get the bloc of 27 member states speaking with one voice, a goal the highly-paid EU official set herself at the outset.

"When I speak of impatience, I think chiefly about the Union's capacity to speak with one voice," said Vanackere, describing the recent turmoil in Arab states as the "great test".

"In the absence of a central player that reacts, makes analyses and conclusions quickly, it is the Germans today, the French tomorrow or the English who partially take up this role ... The result is centrifugal, not centripetal."

"How can one resolve this problem? The Belgian diplomatic service will continue to push Ashton and her [external action] service towards strong positions. Failing that, if there is silence and this silence is 'occupied' by France, Germany etc., Belgium will search for partners in other countries."

Vanackere acknowledged that there was a tussle for power between different EU institutions at the moment, and that it is impossible for Ashton to be in all places at once.

However, this only magnified the need to correctly assess the Union's top priorities, he said, as well as to adopt a well-thought-out medium and long-term analytical approach.

"One must make choices, concentrate on the key issues, avoid getting lost in the details, manage one's agenda. That's what [European Council President] Herman Van Rompuy does," Vanackere said in praise of his compatriot.

Both are Christian Democrats from the northern Flemish region of Belgium.

"We can accept that some react faster than Ashton, but with the condition that she can prove that she is working for the medium-term and long-term on very important issues like energy, for example. But I have not seen this either."

The minister, whose monthly meetings with other EU foreign ministers are now chaired by Ashton under the EU's Lisbon Treaty, said the high representative's analysis had failed to bring any new insights to the table.

"During the Belgian Presidency, there was a debate about our relationship with strategic partners. I found the analysis prepared by the staff of Ashton rather disappointing. It was an inventory of what people who watch the world already know: China is important, emerging markets, be careful ..."

A spokesperson for Ashton refuted the allegations, saying the high representative had picked well-defined foreign policy priorities.

"On the Arab Spring, it's very clear where we are going, in the short, medium and long term," Michael Mann told this website. "Ashton has been at the forefront of placing sanctions against states such as Libya, and at the forefront of long-term post-Gaddafi political decision-making."

He also defending Ashton's ability to manage her busy schedule: "I don't think the comparison with Van Rompuy's agenda is valid as they both do completely different jobs."

"Just this week she had a major success in New York securing EU representation, yesterday she attended a commission meeting in Brussels on the EU's future budget, and today she will attend a meeting of the 'contact group' on Libya in Rome."

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