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Foreign policy test

Gavin Hewitt | 12:40 UK time, Thursday, 17 December 2009

Catherine AshtonCatherine Ashton, the EU's new foreign policy chief, today set out her ambitions. In a letter to The Times she said that her job was to "make our voice stronger" on the world stage. She also extolled the virtues of "quiet diplomacy".

Few public figures are allowed to settle in quietly and Catherine Ashton will be no exception.

Firstly, in January, she faces a grilling by members of the European Parliament. All the indications are that it will be a tough session with searching questions about her inexperience in foreign affairs. She cannot afford to emerge weakened from this questioning because of the belief that she was a compromise candidate.

Secondly, it is worth picking up on the doubts that are already out there. In the Polish paper Gazeta Wyborcza, Jacek Pawlicki writes of the risks to Catherine Ashton in an early crisis. He thinks it could come as early as January when Moscow and Kiev fall out once again over energy payments and Europe risks some of its homes going cold. In that scenario he says that "neither (Russian) Prime Minister Putin, nor President Medvedev will want to receive her because they consider her to be a too low-ranking official".

That may be too harsh and even untrue, but the underlying question remains valid. If supplies are cut off who will take the lead in negotiations? Will it be Catherine Ashton, representing Europe's foreign ministers, or will the call that matters come from German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

Then there is the South African paper which says that Europe has been "uncertain and meandering" since establishing its new posts. It quotes an un-named European ambassador who refers to the new President of the European Council and the foreign policy chief as "garden gnomes".

This may be little more than unsourced back-chat but what it tells you is that the new faces of Europe will have to prove themselves, to demonstrate that they are figures of substance.

Sometime in early February, Catherine Ashton is expected to visit Jerusalem. Even experienced diplomats tread carefully here where words and nuances can have immediate impact.

One of the tests she applies to the new role is that Europe speaks with a more "coherent" voice. Beyond calling for the Palestinians to return to negotiations and for the Israelis to cease settlements in the West Bank will she be able to convey that Europe has a "coherent" policy on the Middle East that, however supportive of American efforts, is distinctive from them?

Over Afghanistan the reality was that Europe had to wait until President Barack Obama had decided what his policy would be. Then different countries gave varying responses to the American surge. France and Germany won't make up their minds until the end of January.

Thirdly, it will be difficult to change the reality of big states and how they exercise power. On some of the most sensitive issues, like Iran and its nuclear ambitions, France speaks boldly and with the clearest voice.

In Copenhagen, again, it is France and Britain who have been holding talks with Ethiopia to try and break a deadlock. Everyone knows that there are major differences between the member states over how to pay for combating climate change. Gordon Brown has gone it alone in setting out his ambitions for halving greenhouse gases in the UK.

Now none of this may matter except for the fact that the EU is about to build a new diplomatic service with thousands of posts. Catherine Ashton wants it to be the "pride of Europe" but the European tax-payers will want convincing that it is worth paying for as discussions get under way about the EU's budget. Is the European External Action Service necessary or is it another diplomatic layer on top of that run by the nation states?

Some of the burden of whether the Lisbon Treaty has made the European Union a more effective and powerful voice in the world will fall on the shoulders of Catherine Ashton.


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