Ashton has been criticised for the EU’s response to the revolutions in North Africa, deemed by many to be slow, weak or inadequate. She has managed to be simultaneously admonished for being too reluctant to lead, but also for treading on the toes of Europe’s political heavyweights, in a space jealously guarded by presidents and prime ministers. Even the Foreign Minister of Belgium expressed his exasperation. But this fixation on personality has been counter-productive. It was European leaders themselves who selected Ashton for the role, undoubtedly in part because of her relative obscurity, and they should work with the new structures - and the incumbent - rather than against them.
The creation of the Service is the fulfilment of a provision of the Treaty of Lisbon. More than that though, it is the institutional embodiment of an aspiration : a Europe that is a diplomatic heavyweight, whose collective efforts are more than the sum of its constituent parts. The watchwords were coordination, coherence and consistency in foreign policy, and that favourite Brussels phrase : global player.
The Service was finally launched, without fanfare, at a quiet Brussels ceremony on December 1, 2010. The EEAS took its first steps in the midst of a dramatic period in international relations. The last six months have seen revolutions and revolt across the Arab world, a European driven military campaign in Libya, an electoral crisis in Cote D’Ivoire and an environmental and humanitarian disaster in Japan. This was a challenging period in which to establish a new diplomatic operation.
A good deal of the criticism of the EEAS to-date has been unfair. The immense challenges it has faced - both bureaucratic and political - merit a more measured judgement. The High Representative was faced with the task both of constructing the Service’s core elements - its staff, structure and strategy - whilst simultaneously responding to rapidly changing international events. Responsibilities for enlargement, the neighbourhood policy, humanitarian aid and development policy remain with the Commission, complicating the institutional coordination required. Many staff positions remain unfilled.
Six months, two revolutions and an ongoing war later, we can reflect on some of the patterns that emerged from the EEAS and Ashton’s actions in the light of the Arab awakening. For Europe, fear of uncertainty trumped hope in reform. As unrest spread initially, the EU’s response, mostly in the form of reactive statements as events moved quickly on the ground, was overwhelmingly cautious. There was an expectation that the regimes of Ben Ali, Mubarak et al would survive the wave of protests against them. Calls for restraint and expressions of sympathy for victims were thus the dominant diplomatic messages. Little more was done until Washington led in that direction (as in Egypt), the regime had already collapsed (as in Tunisia) or the fear of humanitarian atrocities became too strong (as in Libya).
In early January, as protests and violence spread across Tunisia, Ashton was criticised for not going further in her public statements. Others, however, were even more guarded. France, the former colonial power in Tunisia with extensive interests and a close historical relationship, was reluctance to interfere or condemn. The reaction of some French politicians now seems hopelessly behind the curve. Bruno le Marie, the French Agriculture minister, thought President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a man often ’ ’misjudged’ and Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie offered to send a gendarmerie force to help restore order in its former colony. Alliot-Marie’s closeness to Ben Ali’s regime eventually led to her resignation, after it emerged that as late as January 12, the French government had authorised the sale of tear-gas grenades to Tunis and that, inexplicably, she had holidayed in the country following the initial uprising. Against this background, Ashton’s stance seems more reasonable. The varied positions of member states - in particular France’s caution and attachment to the ancien regime - made it difficult for Ashton to adopt a more robust position which supported the protestors cause or did more to isolate and condemn the regime.
The January 17 statement by Ashton and Neighbourhood Commissioner Stefan Füle called for a peaceful democratic transition and said that Tunisia has reached a ’point of no return,’ but this came as the regime had already effectively collapsed. The EU froze the assets of former President Ben Ali and 47 other persons, but almost three weeks after the regime had fallen and Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia.
Ashton’s first statement on Egypt came on January 27, two days after the first mass protest and a day after the Mubarak regime had attempted to shut down the internet to disrupt protestors organising digitally. It called for restraint, and for the Egyptian government to ’fully respect the rights of their citizens’. But no more than that. In a statement the following day, she called on the Egyptian authorities to urgently establish a ’constructive and peaceful way to respond to the legitimate aspirations of Egyptian citizens’.
That statement noted that the Foreign Affairs Council would meet on Monday to discuss the crisis. This demonstrates a repeated pattern of Ashton’s diplomacy, a preference for prioritising discussion and establishing consensus before considering hardening her stance. Once again, there appeared to be continued attachment from some member states to the established order, with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and others discouraging the EU from abandoning its long-term ally.
When the Council met on Monday, January 31, they called for an ’orderly transition’, echoing the phrase used in Washington the previous day by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the Council’s judgements had been foreshadowed on January 29 after a joint statement by Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy called for ’a process of transformation reflected in a broad-based government’, preempting the Council discussion. Reports suggest also that Ashton did not get to speak to Mubarak directly, unlike Barack Obama, Merkel and Cameron. She was asked not to visit Egypt by the country’s authorities after having been tasked to do so by the Council, and when she eventually did go on February 21, David Cameron arrived earlier and managed to distract attention and press focus. Asset freezes on former President Hosni Mubarak and a number of members of his government eventually arrived on March 21.
The crisis in Libya demonstrated most profoundly the structural difficulties facing Ashton and the EEAS. From an early stage, European states were split on how to respond. The ties of friendship and business between (the eccentric) Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and (the eccentric) Berlusconi led Italy to be an early voice of caution along with Malta and Spain, who remained concerned about waves of migration heading north. At an emergency summit in Brussels on March 10 convened to discuss intervention in Libya, France and Britain pushed for a strong communiqué that referenced a no-fly zone and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Germany emerged as the powerful voice for restraint. Ashton was allied to the German position, expressing concerns about the potential efficacy of a no-fly zone, the risk to civilians and how quickly a military operation could be assembled. Briefing against the nofly zone by those close to Ashton did a great deal to anger London and Paris, and did not strengthen her capacity to play power-broker.
The politics moved swiftly and dramatically. Continued aggression by Gaddafi brought the issue to a head. Skillful French and British diplomacy, combined with the crucial endorsement of the Arab League, created significant momentum for a no-fly zone. The impending assault on Benghazi finally forced their hand. The end result was the remarkable position of Germany abstaining in a UN Security Council vote - alongside China and Russia - as France, Britain and the United States (US) pushed through resolution 1973 permitting use of force to protect civilians in Libya. Europe was disunited, the High Representative was marginalised and NATO eventually became the dominant organisation in the administration of the campaign.
On April 1, the Council did authorise an EU military mission in support of humanitarian assistance operations in Libya (probably in part to divert attentions from the splits over the UN sanctioned campaign led by France and the UK). However, despite having a budget and an Italian Rear Admiral in charge, it has yet to deploy any forces.
The recognition that something seismic was happening on Europe’s doorstep created a demand for a European diplomatic response on a similar scale. The more the civic eruptions in North Africa were presented as a defining test for Ashton and the Service, the more expectations inflated and Europe’s new foreign policy apparatus was judged to have fallen short.
Profound differences emerged amongst the EU 27. Whether it was the attachment of some states to the cabal of autocrats who had been ensuring stability in the EU’s ’Southern Neighbourhood’, their willingness to use force, or their varied feelings of vulnerability to immigration and instability, the EU simply did not agree a common position beyond the obvious one of condemning violence. The High Representative cannot articulate a common position when one doesn’t exist, and the EEAS can do little to overcome substantive disagreements between member states.
It is also clear that Europe’s major powers are not about to give up their leadership role to Ashton and the EEAS. The joint statement by Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron which pre-empted the European Council meeting is a perfect illustration of this. While the small states may feel that their voices are amplified by a High Representative for the whole of Europe, the larger states appear to feel constrained. They are not ready to give up their prerogatives in deference to a pan-European voice. As William Hague told the House of Commons, "While we are working closely with the new European External Action Service…there is not and will never be any substitute for a strong British Diplomatic Service that advances the interests of the United Kingdom. We can never rely on anyone else to do that." As a corollary, it is not reasonable for EU leaders to bemoan her leadership when it is clear that they have not given her the space to lead.
This may partly be the fault of Lady Ashton herself, whose consensual style, critics argue, may have already diminished the leadership stature the office could have held with a more proactive or heavyweight incumbent. Diplomacy often requires speed and initiative, which the EU will always struggle to provide. The High Representative’s is an unenviable job. A lack of flair for gesture politics doesn’t help. One seasoned observer thought "she has played an impossible hand very badly".
However, there are reasons for optimism. Under Ashton’s leadership and Robert Cooper’s supervision, the first direct diplomatic talks between Serbia and Kosovo began in March 2011. Talks themselves are an achievement, and credible progress to normalise relations would be a genuine and significant diplomatic success. In an impressive display of shuttle diplomacy, Ashton successfully averted a potentially destabilising referendum in Republika Srpska, which would have questioned the legality of the national court of Bosnia. Ashton was able to get President Mirolad Dodik to cancel the referendum, in exchange for a ’comprehensive overview’ of the Bosnian judiciary, in the context of Bosnian accession to the EU. Ashton manged to reassure Dodic sufficiently that he could roll back from the referendum.
The review of the Neighbourhood Policy conducted between Fule and Ashton’s offices is also encouraging, focused on supporting transition in North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Partnership countries through a relationship that is deeper, more accountable and more demanding - although it represents only a modest increase of 250 euros per year on already allocated funds, backed by loans from the European Investment Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Ashton views her role in the longer-term sense, stating her job is "the deep, long-term support for countries going through change for whatever reason, to support the people towards the freedom and democracy that they so clearly want".
The real test for the success of the External Action Service should not be how it responded to Libya when faced with a fractured Europe. Rather, the test will come in the ability of the EEAS to enable the EU to be an effective and influential partner for the emerging democracies to the south, and to integrate them into a prosperous and democratic community with the success that it managed in the former eastern bloc. The EU can still be a strong partner for the new democracies of the Middle East, as establishing economic prosperity and democratic accountability will be the twin pillars of consolidating those revolutions. And the EEAS should lead this work. The challenge now is to move beyond the focus on personality, accept the settled structure of the service, and look towards developing a clear strategic framework for the medium and long term.