Catherine Ashton's EU soft power

Catherine Ashton in Egypt, 19 Jul 13 Lady Ashton remained tight-lipped about her conversation with Mr Morsi

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Catherine Ashton is one of Britain's most powerful women and yet passes almost unrecognised. Indeed, I recently observed her stepping off a London-bound Eurostar and not a head turned.

Yet she is the foreign policy chief of the EU, with a large and growing diplomatic staff answerable to her.

On Tuesday she did what no other outsider had achieved since 3 July - she met with deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. It may not bear fruit, but she has cast herself as a potential mediator between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both sides seem to respect her impartiality.

In the almost deserted corridors of power in Brussels - with summer holidays under way - respect for her has edged up. It has not always been that way.

She was not the first choice for the post of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs.

She was a Labour peer widely judged to be out of her depth. She was ill at ease before the cameras and wary of the media and, early on, chose poor advisers. In the Brussels bubble she was discounted. A very senior German politician said cuttingly that hers was not a name worth remembering.

She was not helped by the fact that the EU did not have a foreign policy. Time and again when the big calls needed to be made it was the big powers that set the agenda. Britain and France used their military power - with a lot of help from America - to oust Libya's Colonel Gaddafi. When it comes to Russia it is the Germans who have the special relationship.

And on matters which relate to their export markets - like China - the Germans scarcely cast a glance at Brussels.

Bumpy start

For some it did not help that Lady Ashton seemed bent on empire-building, assembling an expensive diplomatic service. Some begrudged the expense. Others saw it as a classic Brussels play: get the bureaucracy in place first, and the power and influence will follow.

But Catherine Ashton had supporters. As US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spoke up on her behalf. Lady Ashton had only modest success in dealing with the Iranians over their nuclear ambitions, but she did much better in the Balkans. Using the bargaining chip of potential EU membership she got the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo to agree to normalise relations.

In Egypt she chose to get involved from the start, as protests led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. She was quick to offer the EU's assistance in sustaining a democratic future. She put in the hours and earned herself the opportunity this week to shuttle between the army and the detained president from the Muslim Brotherhood.

It may not work, but she has become a respected interlocutor at a time when the Americans - certainly in Egypt and Syria - are struggling to define their policy.

Lady Ashton believes in the EU's soft power. She recently said that it "rewards imagination". In Egypt it has earned the EU influence at a dangerous moment.

Late next year Catherine Ashton's time in Brussels will be over. Egypt may lead to a reassessment of her legacy.

Gavin Hewitt, Europe editor Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 431.


    neither America nor the UK is on anybody´s Christmas card list

    --so don´t worry about it !

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    What we are witnessing --is where societies really are in their societal development.

    Friends are enemies and enemies are friends.

    Lies ,deceit and treachery may be the cause of new alliances.

    --but one thing is clear --the fall of Communism has reduced the possibility of more Freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    What if G20 threw a party in St. Petersburg and Uncle Sam didn't go.What would the other guests do without the life of the party.What would Ashton say?Soft power only goes so far.Personally I think these G20 meetings are a waste of taxpayer money anyway.Nothing of value would be lost to us, they never accomplish anything.I think Obama should cross Russia off his Christmas card list,No more visits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    #426 Hoover

    --Much more has been promised --we should be prepared to rethink our trusts and arguments.

    --a possible catastrophe --for those accustomed to thinking

    --No difference for those who don´t.

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    #424 Sieu

    You mean I was put into pre-moderation cyber solitary confinement and still thirsty for THAT answer ?

    Taught me a lesson.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    425.margaret howard

    "Never in all my life did I expect to see such a turn around in human affairs"


    Nor me. I only wish my parents were here to see it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    418 The J Hoovers

    "Incidentally, it seems Russia is now the Land Of The Free, for one US citizen at least"

    Yes, I was going to comment on that.

    Never in all my life did I expect to see such a turn around in human affairs

    422 Jettison

    I have no interest in any of their tax arrangements. Just pointing out Farage preaching one thing and practising another. No morals

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    423 Really? Must I? I ought to charge tuition, I really should.

    "Peace in our time." Ring any bells for you? Do words and phrases like sellout, capitulation, surrender, self delusion conjure up any images in history for you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    #420 sieu

    "which led to Munich a generation later.?

    Munich ?

    --please explain --you lost us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    361.margaret howard

    So when Gordon Brown & David Miliband registered companies at Companies House to pay their non-MP income into, they paid 20% tax instead of 40% tax, that was OK by your reasoning, eh?

    (Dear Moderator, if you remove this post you have to also go down the line removing those about Farage's finances too)

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    415,417There's still time to petition Cameron to put joining Euro on a referendum.Why go down on an island ferry when you can go down on the Eurotanic?Go out in style.Make one last big splash.

    The EU could look even bigger if it admitted Turkey.Of course Turkey isn't doing so well right now given the squabble in the park but that will probably end soon.Elected dictatorship.Perfect EU candidate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    415 The US has been printing money to get out of recessions since the great depression of the 1930s. They just need to do more of it now. BoE is doing the same. ECB can't. It's hands are tied by treaty based on Germany's paranoia about inflation and devaluation.That was a result of another disaster engineered in Europe, the Treaty of Versailles...which led to Munich a generation later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    #414 Hoover

    Britain justifies its existence ( well thought out) by the continued Ruling of only one family at any point in history. They are answerable to no one.

    The idea of ´parliamentary Democracy´ has little democratic basis(if any)-- that is why everything is ´His or Her Majesty´s´ something.

    The danger the EU poses for the ´system´ is clear.

    Thus the panic.

    Ms Ashton cannot help.

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.


    Yes the dog has fleas, but there's a treatment, so no need to shoot it.

    Meanwhile I'd say Ms. Ashton's doing far more good than anyone from the US ever could in that arena.

    Incidentally, it seems Russia is now the Land Of The Free, for one US citizen at least. He will find those Slavic declensions tough though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    404. sieuarlu
    "The EU constitution was created to establish a single centralized all powerful authority that is largely unaccountable to anyone.It's a roadmap to despotism and failure."
    Single? Centralized? All-powerful? You sound like an American far-right republican complaining about the "big" Washington government.
    Next you'll be telling us about the unelected US cabinet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    The beauty of Euro is that the very people who engineered it to be an escape proof trap are now caught in it themselves.There is no real legal way out of it and it would probably take a unanimous vote of all members to amend the treaty to allow escape.That's unlikely.Perhaps those who want out like Germany can invent a pretext like they sold too many curvy bananas to be allowed to stay in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    399 Phfft

    "US by fracking has transformed its economic & strategic prospects"

    US economic 'strategies' are "Quantitative Easing" - in other words print money when you want some more. I have yet failed to convince my husband of the effectivenes of this in our housekeeping arrangements

    It's 'success' will be short lived

    However I hope fracking will stop US invading oil rich nations

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    "This is why the EU is so dangerous for UK elite and must be stopped"


    The UK seems to me a State within a State. We have the same few families who still own by far the greater part of the land, closely connected with the military and Church. The BBC too is accepted to be part of the Establishment. The teeming millions, crowded together, are worked to sustain these.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    #411 MH

    "When Scotland goes independent that will be the end of the UK. What do you think we should do then?"

    Any thoughts on that?"

    -- Show mercy to EUp

    --Ms Ashton would-

    I´m thirsty --Ms Ashton would give me some water in cyber solitary-- according to EU laws.

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    409As I recall the only things taken out of the EU constitution to create the Lisbon treaty were those elements that prevented circumventing another vote.Even so Ireland had to vote twice "to get it right." I also recall they increased the text by 8000 words but made the print smaller and spaced the lines closer so they could print it on fewer pages pretending it was shorter.Same poison new bottle


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