Five years ago Europe got a foreign minister by accident. Catherine Ashton was no-one’s first or last choice but emerged like Eurydice from the Brussels underworld where potential EU bigwigs emerge into the sunlight or are turned into salt.
In 2009 there was a Brussels corridor carve-up. A handful of men decided that the new post of President of the Council should go to the centre-right (EPP) and the High Representative to the centre-left (PES).
Without real discussion the socialists decided that David Miliband, the UK’s young Labour Foreign Secretary, should have the job.
Miliband refused the offer made by the PES president and former Danish prime minister, Paul Nyrup Rasmussen, at a frosty meeting in London. He saw his future in British politics. His brother did not. But with the Hi Rep post already allocated to a British Labourite it was just easy to give it to the competent if unflashy Catherine Ashton, already in place in 2009 as British Commissioner.
She has had mission impossible as the old guard of the Commission want to keep all the jobs at the EU’s 139 delegations or embassies around the world for their own people. EU member states wanted to slot in their own diplomats and make the EU’s foreign policy empire more responsive to national governments.
Ashton has been almost permanently on the road without a proper holiday in five years. Every day there is a demand that she chairs a meeting or visits a country or attends international gatherings. She hardly turns up for Brussels Commission meetings and the social democratic hopes she would influence the EU’s austerity growth- and job-destroying orthodoxy came to naught.
Before 2009, the EU had an External Relations Commissioner and the EU Council had a High Representative. Ashton combined the posts and did all the work done before by a tandem of skilled foreign policy operatives like Chris Patten and Javier Solana.
She has in fact brought more peace in the Balkans with an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo than any national foreign minister has managed. She has also kept difficult four-way talks (EU, US, Russia and Iran) alive on the problem of Iran’s bid for nuclear power status.
And now she has to be replaced. A group of all the main European foreign policy opinionators ranging from ex-foreign ministers like Spain’s Ana Palacio, ex-foreign policy advisors like Charles Powell, and policy experts like Charles Grant, Mark Leonard, Andres Ortega and Aleksander Smolar have appealed to EU governments to appoint someone ‘who can coordinate European policy and re-examine its global strategy.’ Moreover the new Hi Rep must be chosen ‘not on the narrow basis of geography, or quotas’ but ‘the best candidate must be chosen’ as ‘Europe’s place in the world’ is at stake.
This eoloquent language sounds noble though it is doubtful if Charles Powell, when advising Margaret Thatcher, would have paid any attention to Brussels. Many of the other politician-signatories endorse EU foreign policy as long as it support their own national foreign policy line as any British minister who has discussed Gibraltar with Madrid can testify.
And that is the rub. The EU Hi Rep cannot go beyond what is acceptable in Paris, London, Berlin and other capitals. In fact, if a Hi Rep offered the kind of resounding leadership and vision described by the think-tankers and retired foreign ministers he or she would quickly find out what it is like to be cut off at the knees.
Right now the EU is seized by the Putin question. Two of the proposed candidates, Frederica Mogherini from Italy and Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva are seen as coming from political backgrounds far too ready to accommodate the Kremlin. Two other names, Poland’s Radek Sikorski or Sweden’s Carl Bildt, have from the opposite profile – they have made foreign policy careers out of being strongly anti-Moscow. Is there someone out there who has no sharp edges – a Goldilocks Hi Rep who can stand up to Kremlin bullying but not to the point of confrontation? Someone who can speak for EU public opinion after Gaza but not renounce Europe’s duty to protect Israel from terrorism and anti-semitic ideology?
Equally, is there someone who can find ways of speaking for Europe without irritating EU leaders who see statements and positions on foreign questions about the last bit of Spielraum they have in a world where economic issues are decided by banks and markets, and no EU national leader has the clout of a de Gaulle or a Thatcher in world affairs?
And will other commissioners in areas like international development or trade be ready to submit to wider EU foreign policy as defined by the Hi Rep? All these questions are expected to be answered by the end of August. The superman or woman to succeed Cathy Ashton may be hidden somewhere in Europe. But it is hard to spot him or her right now.
Denis MacShane is Britain’s former minister of Europe.
first published Eu Reporter 13 August 2014