Does it really matter whether Catherine Ashton's travel plans include Haiti, Gaza or an erupting Icelandic volcano? There must be more insightful analysis, and less idle gossip, in press coverage of EU attempts to forge a common foreign policy
On Sunday March 21, an ancient Icelandic volcano erupted, blasting a huge fissure in an ice-field and spreading thick clouds of ash over a large area. My first thought was: "Cool!"
My second was: "When is Catherine Ashton flying to Reykjavik to show the EU cares?"
OK, that is untrue. But I bet the question crossed the minds of a few members of the Brussels press corps. Ever since she was appointed the EU's foreign policy chief last November, many EU journalists have seemed unable to cover a crisis without asking: "Is Ashton there yet?"
The media's fixation with her travels says more about the media than it does about Ashton - it is hard not to conclude that some pundits have little grasp of foreign affairs.
It started with Haiti. The media and some MEPs criticised Ashton for not heading to Port-au-Prince straight after January's earthquake, supposedly making the EU look bad.
She was right not to get in the way of aid workers. Yet for some in Brussels, her absence was the story. Which is, if you pause to think about it for a second, morally vacuous.
Yet when Ashton has got on a plane, she has been criticised too. When she went to Ukraine in February for the inauguration of President Yanukovych, she was attacked for missing a meeting of European defence ministers in Majorca that fell on the same date.
It is a weird world when a politician gets told off for spending a late winter day in Kiev (average February weather: minus 5 degrees centigrade, with a 60 percent chance of precipitation) rather than enjoying the Mediterranean spring with fellow Euro big-wigs.
But maybe the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy had fallen into the trap of imagining that her job meant doing a little bit of foreign policy work. She would have an easier time if she prioritised press conferences in sunny places.
Last week she did visit a sunny place: Gaza. While she was there, radicals fired a rocket into Israel, killing a Thai labourer. There were duly headlines about how Ashton's trip had been "overshadowed" and "marred" by the killing. A Hamas spokesman assured the press that there was no linkage to her visit - not, perhaps, the PR help she really wanted.
Still, her trips to date have been measured and sensible. She has gone to places where the EU either has influence but needs focus (the Balkans) or has deep humanitarian concerns (Gaza). She has not pulled off spectacular deals, but no such deals were on offer.
The foreign policy chief, admittedly new to this sort of work, is probing the EU's extremely complex security environment. If someone wanted to write a really serious story about her travels, it would not focus on her as a person (or her relations with other EU players) but on just how horrible the EU's strategic situation looks when seen up close.
The real stories are Russia's resurgence, Israel's recalcitrance, the renewed chauvinism of the Bosnian Serbs, endemic corruption in Kosovo, al Qaeda's increasing presence in North Africa - the list goes on at length. But it is easier for the press to personalise matters and concentrate on Ashton. And maybe that is what the Brussels market desires.
This is not particularly shocking. There has been a lot of negative briefing against Ashton, and there is nothing like a dose of negative briefing to make journalists feel important.
It has all happened before. Her predecessor, Javier Solana, often got a rough ride from the press. In 2000, when Middle East peace talks driven by the outgoing Clinton administration failed, a Guardian editorial attacked "the sad tsar of European foreign policy" for not standing up to the Americans more. This will most likely happen again.
There are very good foreign policy commentators in Brussels and around Europe who write insightful things about Europe's strategic outlook. Nonetheless, much coverage of Ashton's first months in office has seemed wilfully, depressingly introverted at times.
Pundits tend to open articles with phrases like "the EU must adapt to a world defined by a shift in the balance of power from the West to new powers like China and India" before salivating for 800 words over whether France, Britain or Germany has more influence over planning for the External Action Service. Nobody seems to spot the contradiction.
In a recent blog-post, the Economist's David Rennie suggested that all Brussels correspondents should be required to leave the city every five years to refresh their understanding of the outside world. I would propose a more immediate solution: everyone who has filed a piece retelling stale gossip about Catherine Ashton should be forced to write an investigative piece probing a poorly understood strategic challenge to the EU.
And none of those are allowed to refer to Iceland's volcanoes, even if it is tempting to try out a headline about "Volcanic Ash-ton".
(This article appears in E!Sharp)
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.