Madrid View: Saving Private Ashton


First was Tunis, then Egypt, later Libya. The EU failed in its diagnosis about regime stability, never quite supported the protesters and was late divided about Libya. To its merit, Brussels has acknowledged its failure and has set EUMED policy on a new footing.  Paradoxically, Commisioner's Füle acceptance of past mistakes has allowed member states to skip the blame, when in fact they are much more responsible of EUs failed Med Policy than Brussels.

As for the criticism of being slow in reacting to changes, it is a fair one, but easy to excuse. Diplomacy is, after all, little else than the constant exercise of cautiosness when facing change. See Obama: having a well greased diplomatc machinery and effective leadership did not prevent US foreign policy from dithering when faced with revolutionary changes in the MENA region.

As for divisiveness, we tend to forget that this is the starting point of EU foreign policy: if member states interests were naturally and previously aligned on any given topic, we would not need EU institutions to make foreign policy, only bureaucrats to implement it. So, the whole point about triple-hatting Catherine Ashton, creating the EEAS and including a strong security and defence policy in the Lisbon Treaty is to creat foreign policy where there are diverging interests. And this is where we are failing.

Criticisms on Ashton are stepping up. In the Economist, Charlemagne complains she stays away from the press and refuses to lead. And European Voice says her handling of the Libyan crisis has left her with very few friends among the foreign ministers. Some of these criticisism are fair, some unfair. Overall, they ignore that member states are part of the problem, when they should be part of the solution.

For ten years, the standard complain was that the EU lacked the institutions, the instruments and the financial resources for effective foreing policy. Now that the EU has all those things, people complain about the lack of leadership. From leadership without institutions to institutions without leadership? The debate might be intellectually worthy. However, a blame game between Ministers and Ashton precisely at a moment when the Libyan crisis its at its height and Assad is provoking the Siryans to revolt would be a disaster. The fact is that Ashton looks increasingly isolated. It is the Foreign Ministers' responsibility to stop this situation and prevent her from being captured or marginalized . A rescue mission behind enemy lines may be needed. How could this work? Having already stumbled into three crisis, one possibility would be for Ashton and the Foreign Ministers to commit themselves not to do or say anything on Syria until they have exchanged views and arrived at and enacted a Union Position. So, rescuing private Ashton may first require opening that operations manual called Lisbon Treaty and identifying the right tools. It is weird that EU Ministers, after having fought so much for the Treaty, have not bothered to use it.

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