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The trials of Catherine Ashton

Gavin Hewitt | 15:44 UK time, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Lady Ashton addressing European Parliament, 10 Mar 10For anyone it would be a big ask. But for someone with little or no experience of foreign affairs to be tasked with setting up a diplomatic service and to expound foreign policy on behalf of 500 million people the hurdle is immense. Welcome to the world of Catherine Ashton.

She did not seek the job of EU foreign minister and she was not first choice. She emerged from the chrysalis of a euro-compromise and so became one of Britain's most influential women. She has just about completed her first 100 days. Some of the reviews have been harsh, with even a little lash of cruelty to them. She is dismissed as out of her depth and yet paid more than President Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Today she looked into the faces of MEPs at the European Parliament knowing that out there lurked rows of doubters.

"Europe is going through a phase of building something new," she told them. "Doing so is messy and complicated."

That is undoubtedly true. So what are the charges against her? They began early. She didn't travel to Haiti immediately after its destructive earthquake. She waited and only visited there last week. I have covered disasters; the tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, Katrina to name a few. In my experience visiting officials are tolerated more than welcomed. Catherine Ashton said she didn't do "disaster tourism" but some held it against her.

Then there was the case of the meeting she missed. She was a no-show at the European defence ministers' meeting. Some of the ministers were open in their criticism. One said she was "noticeable by her absence". She was actually in Ukraine, a strategically important country for the EU.

There was, too, the case of the EU's new ambassador to Washington. He turned out to be EU Commission President Barroso's chief of staff. Questions were asked as to who was actually running the EU's foreign policy.

One of Catherine Ashton's main tasks is to build a diplomatic service or what the EU calls its External Action Service. What it would entail was left surprisingly vague by the Lisbon Treaty and Catherine Ashton has to set out her plans at the beginning of April. In the meantime she is operating without a proper staff. But creating what is in effect a new institution has exposed her to some of Brussels's nasty turf wars. As one diplomat put it, "Brussels is a town that feasts on ill will".

One of the purposes of this diplomatic service is to bring some clarity and cohesion to the EU's foreign representation. Up until now the Commission had people abroad, so did the European Council.

There was duplication and the structure was baffling to outsiders. Catherine Ashton is, in effect, turning three jobs into one. She has taken over some of the Commission's turf - like development aid - and they don't like it. They are not used to ceding ground. Some of the bureaucrats are fighting back, determined to keep their hands on the budget and key appointments.

In the Parliament today there was some criticism. One MEP, referring to the turf battles, told her: "You mustn't be intimated by internal rules. Be a protagonist." Another called for strong leadership. It was all pretty mild.

What Catherine Ashton has going for her is that both MEPs and most of Europe's leaders have a vested interest in making her job work. The consequence of failure is not just humiliation for Catherine Ashton but recognition that the long years of arguing have failed to deliver a stronger voice for Europe on the world stage. Few want to see that. One senior official said to me "she can't match up to some of the foreign policy heavyweights" but she is skilful at finding consensus and has already developed good relations with Hillary Clinton and Russia's Sergei Lavrov.

The harder question to answer relates less to Catherine Ashton and more to the need for a diplomatic service. For even as she was fighting off her critics President Sarkozy was hosting a summit with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. An arms deal was pulled off, with the Russians getting helicopter-carriers, and there were discussions on muscular issues like Iran. France, like Germany, inclines towards a special relationship with Moscow. It was an old, familiar story of two powerful nations talking and finding common interest. Europe's nation states are most unlikely to agree to taking second place to a common European foreign policy.


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