Catherine Ashton for a second term at the EEAS ?

Le choix de Catherine Asthon a-t-il été une erreur de la part des vingt-sept chefs d’Etat et de gouvernement qui ont porté la Britannique à la tête de la diplomatie européenne ? Depuis un an et demi, les critiques n’ont pas manqué mais les partisans de Catherine Ashton, comme son adjoint Pierre Vimont, demandent de regarder les progrès accomplis par l’Union européenne. Ils soulignent les réactions plus rapides du Service européen d’action extérieur (EEAS, selon l’acronyme anglais), par exemple vis-à-vis de la Syrie.

A senior official at the European External Action Service has told he would encourage Catherine Ashton to stand for a second term in office as High Representative for Foreign Affairs despite the criticism being levelled at her from all sides.

Praising Ashton for her work in opening an EEAS office in Benghazi, Pierre Vimont said the High Representative had become popular with Libyan people and political leaders alike. He pointed to other "successes" such as European Union sanctions on Syria as proof that Ashton was performing well. "I haven’t asked her, but I personally would like to see her stand again for a second term," the EEAS Executive Secretary General said.

The praise comes after Poland’s Europe Minister Mikolaj Dowgielewicz also highlighted the positive experience he had working alongside Ashton. Batting away the almost-daily criticism aimed at the high representative, he told that the backlash against Ashton was "a lot of hot air", adding : "She has an impossible job to do and she is doing it well. At the end of her time in office, people will be more positive about what she has done. She will leave a real legacy."

Both men were in attendance at the University Association for Contemporary European Studies annual conference at Cambridge University this week. The topics of Ashton’s political style and the alleged lack of responsiveness at the EEAS threatened to dominate the conference, at times. Former European Commission adviser and director of the EU-Russia Centre Dr Fraser Cameron told delegates : "The criticism one hears of Ashton is pretty strong and it will be difficult to overcome the bad press she has. It represents a problem for the EEAS, when it comes to public diplomacy, and reflects the system we have for choosing leaders.

"Too often, the EEAS is waiting until the last member state signs up to the position ; they could set out a view much earlier. When you look at places like Egypt - Cathy has been five times, but people are still not quite sure what the EEAS does or who speaks for Europe. The glass is less than half full. I think the criticism of Ashton is down to style and morale in the EEAS is not as good as it should be."

Joining the debate, Stephen Dalziel – executive director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce – insisted that the system for selecting a strong candidate for the job was flawed, potentially resulting in the wrong person being appointed. "On Ashton, it strikes me as a classic case of what is a camel – it’s a horse designed by committee." But defending Ashton against the claims, Vimont countered : "The high representative is much more ambitious than you think and is leading the way whenever she can. As time goes by, I hope everybody will become a little more reasonable

"It may be the holiday season, but I think morale is improving at the EEAS. Things are moving in the right direction and relationships are getting better. Cathy has great influence in places like Libya, Kosovo and the Middle East - she has had a number of successes. Of course, she has a different personality from Chris Patten or Javier Solana. But in spite of what people are saying, things have evolved. There is much common ground and people have got used to working together. The EEAS is at the beginning of a long process that will take time. There are other strong financial constraints ; the French – for example – are cutting their diplomatic services by 40 per cent. So there is a lot of room for what we are calling ’smart diplomacy’."

The term "smart diplomacy" is now being promoted by the EEAS as a new form of common foreign policy. Officials believe that member states will be happy to hand more diplomatic duties to the EEAS – with its foreign aid budget and access to global markets – in future, as austerity measures and budget constraints force countries to scale down their own individual embassies abroad. Outlining the vision further, Vimont explained : "There is a need to be able to compete with emerging players like China and India, and to respond to the challenges they bring.

"The world is changing fast with new global actors and new global challenges like environmental issues and defence and security issues. The EU can bring more than individual member states can bring. It calls for new initiatives in European common foreign and security policy. We are building a new institutional framework that is neither council nor commission, but a mixture of both. It’s an ongoing process so don’t judge us too quickly. We had a difficult start at the EEAS, but I hope to be a lot more positive in a year’s time. We do need a unified position on many issues. And just a month ago, people said it was impossible to get a common position on Syria from 27 member states. Progress here bodes well for the future. You do not set up a European diplomatic service in one day, it takes time as we have to create a new culture – it’s about a completely new approach. Some 15 years ago, you didn’t have to concern yourself with Brazil or China and the G20 wasn’t there. But the institutional framework has to adapt to the reality of today. "

In contrast to the positive picture painted by Vimont, assessing the reaction to Libya, Cameron insisted that the military action taken by France and the UK proved that the EU was not at the forefront of foreign affairs. "We have gone backwards ; the problem is the unpredictability of Angela Merkel. Germany is not reliable and the German Chancellor is not interested in foreign policy. If you don’t have the big three – Germany, France and the UK – working together, then you don’t have an effective European foreign policy. The key is to get London, Paris and Berlin on board to co-operate first. We have eight European seats around the table at the G20, it’s ridiculous."