Four Years In: Reviewing Catherine Ashton’s Term

Four Years In: Reviewing Catherine Ashton’s Term

The European Union is ‘an Economic Giant, a Political Dwarf, and a Military Worm’. The first part is undeniably true, as the current EU-US negotiations remind us, but have the second two claims become less accurate? While there is definitely a long way to go, the European Union’s foreign and security policy representation led by Catherine Ashton has become more coherent, and as a result is worth paying attention to.

With the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the UK’s Lady Catherine Ashton was appointed – though not without some controversy — to the new post of ‘High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’. Her task was to streamline the EU’s global impact, with Ashton becoming President of the European Defense Agency in the process. One of her earliest contributions was to merge the external policy sections of the European Council and European Commission into a single entity – the European External Action Service (EEAS).

However, with almost no experience in foreign policy and the vast range of EU activities around the planet, it is unsurprising that Ashton had a troublesome beginning to her career. While even many European leaders were wondering what the new EU foreign policy chief might do or what values the EEAS might represent, Ashton was unable to give any satisfactory answers, instead relying on broad generalizations.

One of the first international situations she faced was the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010. Not only was Ashton heavily criticized for not displaying sufficient leadership skills in allocating EU resources, but her physical absence in the affair also drew complaints.

Yet, as time went by and the internal EEAS workings have become easier to navigate, Ashton has become a more confident player on the global stage. At the beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Ashton was reluctant to take any considerable stance on promoting democracy in the country, even when large European states such as the UK, France, and Germany all took similar positions. But after the coup this past July, Ashton became the first, and so far only, foreign representative to meet the ousted President Mohamed Morsi, and has continued to play an active role in the conflict mediation ever since.

Elsewhere, Ashton has stressed more tangible developmental targets for the EU. With the political reforms in Myanmar, Ashton pledged increasing EU support and focusing on a ‘new chapter’ in their relations. Earlier this year, in line with Ashton’s efforts, the EU foreign ministers took a strong step in lifting all punitive sanctions on the troubled ASEAN state.

Perhaps the most controversial EU foreign policy measure to date concerns Israel. The European Commission issued a directorate that requires all future agreements between Israel and the EU to state that the West Bank is outside the state of Israel, and that goods coming from the area must also be labeled separately. By promoting such a policy, Ashton has used her connections in the Commission to coordinate a strong EU foreign policy with regional and global ramifications.

Nevertheless, Ashton’s visibility on internationally salient issues tends to be much weaker. Her policies on North Korea, Mali, and Syria have merely taken on the role of bystander or supporter of others, and the failure to gain permanent observer status on the Arctic Council is also a sign of Ashton’s inability to create constructive EU external relations.

Though supporting other states against human rights offenses may give the EU some normative exposure, what is far trickier is to go against the grain of the EU’s allies in such matters. At the moment, the EU is under huge pressure from the US to edit its position on Israeli settlements in the name of maintaining good relations with the US and Israel. With many expecting the EU to cave, this shows that the EU is not yet the big international player that it could be.

This may in large part stem from the EU’s juvenile military structure. Even with increased lobbying and academic debate concerning the EU identity, the idea of a substantial European military presence is distant at best. Thanks to significant member states such as Germany pushing the breaks on this process, things are unlikely to change anytime soon.

But all of this must take into consideration how difficult it is to achieve unity within the EU. It is hard for Ashton to make much progress in any situation unless there is some form of consensus among the 28 member states, especially as EU foreign policy remains an essentially intergovernmental affair.

We must also remember that the concept of an individual EU foreign representative has been around for less than 4 years, and as such the project is still in its early stages. The progress being made now may pave the way for future high representatives and a more unified Europe in general.

In any case, the way things are going at the moment show that Ashton is not content with simply sitting in the background, and is helping the world become accustomed to the idea of a more proactive EU foreign policy. Even though Ashton plans to leave her position already at the end of 2014, the project is unlikely to die anytime soon, and the EU’s role in influencing global affairs is set to expand in interesting ways.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Karl Sorri

Karl has gained global experience working at the Transparency International Secretariat in Berlin, the Political/Economic Section of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, and as a freelance journalist. Karl holds an MA in Politics from the University of Glasgow and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.