Politeía Digest

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The test for Ashton and Europe

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European politics
Charlemagne’s notebook

FOREIGN affairs is back at the forefront of the European Union, for the moment at least. The euro crisis is in a chronic rather than an acute phase, and no big decisions on the euro are expected at Friday’s summit. Time, then, to consider the political crises around the EU’s rim, from Belarus’s rigged election and violent suppression of opposition protests, to unrest in Albania and, of course, the spread of the anti-government protests—the “jasmine revolution”—across North Africa and the Middle East.

These represent a big test of the ability of the External Action Service, the EU’s “foreign ministry” headed by Catherine Ashton, to respond to unexpected events. Twice yesterday, the baroness spoke before the cameras. On the way to a meeting for foreign ministers in Brussels, she made no mention of the need for Egypt to hold “free and fair elections”. Only at the end of the meeting did she come forward with this exhortation.

One draws two lessons from this. First, for a foreign minister Baroness Ashton is strangely allergic to the media, especially what her officials call the “Brussels bubble”. She has reluctantly had to step into its the limelight because of the pressure of events and because of complaints about her lack of visibility. French papers have resumed the stream of criticism of the baroness, whether for allegedly stitching-up top jobs (in French) in favour of Britain and its allies, or because of her alleged lack of vision. “Mme Ashton est nulle” (“Mrs Ashton is useless”), Le Monde reports (in French) one senior French official as saying.

Second, she is averse to showing leadership to her fellow foreign ministers*. Even as the Americans had shifted their position at the weekend to call for an orderly transition to democracy in Egypt, and even after the leaders of Britain, France and Germany issued a joint letter calling for elections, Mrs Ashton was reluctant to call for a free ballot. Diplomats say this is because she feared she did not yet have consensus among the 27 states. Is this admirable respect for smaller member states, who had not yet expressed themselves, or is it a worrying timidity? Read more in The Economist.

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Written by Theophyle

February 8, 2011 at 10:29 am

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