Ashton eases through Parliament hearing

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s new foreign affairs chief, sailed through a hearing in the European Parliament yesterday (11 January), clearing the way for her confirmation when the new European Commission is voted upon later this month.

The British commissioner-designate for external relations faced tough questions during a three-hour parliamentary grilling in Brussels but avoided any major pitfalls despite failing to impress her audience.

Ashton was helped by the format of the hearing, which forced her to answer within a maximum of one or two minutes, preventing her from tripping up on the details of sometimes thorny issues such as Iran or the Middle East.

The European Commission as a whole will be submitted for an approval vote on 26 January and it seems that Ashton’s reasonable performance will secure her a place in the new team. 

Responding to questions from MEPs in the foreign affairs committee, the British commissioner-designate stressed that she would work closely with EU member states in addressing foreign policy issues like Afghanistan or relations with Russia.

She said Europe needed to “speak with one voice” on the world stage but said that all those involved in formulating foreign policy – the European Commission president, the EU’s new permanent president, the rotating EU presidency and member state leaders – should have a say too.

“Whoever speaks, it should be with the same voice,” she said, trying to dispel criticism that the EU’s diplomacy has become even more complex following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. 

Collaborative approach on Middle East

Ashton managed to steer clear of criticism of her approach to the Middle East, pointing to the “incredibly difficult” situation there and saying she “will not rush” for a solution. 

The Briton triggered heated comments last month when she called for Israel to end “discriminatory” treatment of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and for Jerusalem to be the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state (EURACTIV 09/12/09). 

She said she had contacted US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton over the issue. “I’ve begun the conversation but we still need to put together the solutions,” she said, stressing that these would have to be found in close cooperation with the EU’s partners in the region.

She had earlier signalled her intention to travel to the Middle East soon after her confirmation, putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict high on the EU’s agenda. 

The Union for the Mediterranean, a project launched under the French Presidency which had the ambition of including Middle Eastern countries, needs to be understood within the broader context of the EU’s neighbourhood policy, she said, admitting that the initiative “has had a difficult time” and had achieved little so far.

Afghanistan

Responding to a question from Geoffrey Van Orden, a Conservative MEP, Ashton admitted she did not know how much money the EU had earmarked for Afghanistan in 2010.

But she stressed it was “absolutely critical” that the EU remains involved in the conflict-ridden country, even if it has no military means. “Our role may not be military,” she said, but the EU should look for areas where it can “add value” by fostering cooperation between member states that are sending troops there.

Defending human rights

The Briton rejected suggestions that she would be too soft in dealing with human rights problems in countries such as China, Iran or Russia and would follow a policy of “quiet diplomacy” instead of firmness.

“Talking to people without the full glare of publicity can be more effective,” she argued, saying that she would not “for one moment” overlook human rights considerations when visiting other nations.

“Talking loudly” may not achieve the EU’s desired outcome, she argued, saying that human rights are universal but “sometimes require different approaches” with respect to different cultures.

Need for strong relationship with Russia

Many questions related to the EU’s relations with Russia, which have been marked by tensions over Moscow’s attempts to re-build a “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Referring to Russia’s brief August 2008 war with Georgia and other “frozen conflicts” in the Caucasus, Ashton said Moscow was indeed “the common theme” because all these countries used to be members of the USSR.

But Ashton said the EU needed to maintain good relations with its large neighbour, adding that she would look at solving problems, “not creating any different ones”. “Russia we need to have a strong relationship with,” Baroness Ashton insisted.

Moldova, a former Soviet republic with a large Russian minority, is the highest recipient of EU assistance, she noted, at €16 per head.

Responding to a question on energy security, Ashton said the EU should maintain good relations in its dealings with Moscow. “I actually have a map of pipelines with me,” she said, adding that solving the EU’s gas supply problems also had “a lot to do with Ukraine,” a major transit country for Russian gas to Europe.

‘Flexibility’ for EU’s new diplomatic corps

Ashton asked for the Parliament’s “flexibility” in approving the budget of the European External Action Service (EEAS), a 6,000-strong administration introduced by the Lisbon Treaty which she is expected to lead.

The new service, which will combine national diplomats with European officials, should be a “sui generis” structure distinct from the European Commission, she said. At least, “this is what the treaty is telling me,” she explained.

She said she would make sure that a structure is put in place “to make sure the money is looked at” but called also for “flexibility in the budget, not to escape [the Parliament’s] control” but to be able to respond to changing priorities.

But she rejected suggestions that the EU should set up a US-style network of special representatives for specific countries or regions that would need approval by Parliament in confirmation hearings. “I don’t plan to have lots of special representatives in different countries,” she said, explaining that she was “not sure that the treaty allows this” anyway.

Speaking on behalf of the centre-right European People's Party  (EPP), the European Parliament's largest political group, MEP Elmar Brok (CDU, Germany) said he was "not enthusiastic about the performance of Mrs. Ashton". However, in a sign that the EPP was ready to back the Briton, he said the hearing nevertheless "serves as a basis for our future cooperation".

In particular, Brok seems to have appreciated Ashton's recognition of the role played by the Parliament in approving the EU's foreign policy budget. "This concerns in particular the creation of a European External Action Service, whose budget and personnel statute require the approval of the European Parliament in the framework of the co-decision procedure. Without the approval of the European Parliament, there will be no External Action Service," Brok said.

Charles Tannock, a UK Conservative MEP, said Ashton had "improved her performance" since her first appearance before the Parliament last December. 

"She's been working very hard at mastering the knowledge of foreign security and defence policy issues, and I think that did come across so she was clearly much better prepared than she was last time," Tannock said in a video address for the eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists  (ECR) group. 

Tannock added that Ashton nevertheless gave "very evasive answers" and that "her knowledge is still fairly shallow and clearly she shows her lack of experience". "She's improved, she's growing into the job, hopefully she'll surprise us all in the future when she comes back with even more experience. But she certainly wouldn't set the Thames on fire." 

"I would give her a bare pass but I have to discuss this with my colleagues within the group," Tannock concluded. 

The Green group in the European Parliament, which has ranked among Ashton's most vocal critics in the past, was left unimpressed after the hearing, accusing Baroness Ashton of lacking "a political vision". 

The Greens nevertheless commended Ashton for her willingness to meet NGOs on human rights issues in different parts of the world and welcomed her intention to involve the Parliament in budgetary questions related to the external action service. 

"Overall, however, we do not see any commitment to develop a political vision and we remain unclear on what she hopes to achieve over the next five years," the group concluded. 

Oxfam, the international development NGO, was not convinced by Ashton's performance in Parliament. "Baroness Ashton has not yet demonstrated the credentials to get the sea change in approach that Europe will need to truly be able to punch its weight globally […] Ashton must provide the vision for the European Union to step up its engagement around the world, but her responses in the hearing did not provide much evidence of the existence of such a vision," said Elise Ford, head of Oxfam International's EU office. 

"If approved, Ashton will face enormous challenges over the next five years […] Even after the hearing, EU policymakers and concerned citizens and civil society organisations are still left with more questions than answers when it comes to the High Representative's plans to deliver on a new European vision for foreign policy," added Ford. 

Catherine Ashton was unanimously backed by EU heads of state and government to become the EU's foreign policy chief at a summit in November (EURACTIV 20/11/09).

Born in 1956, Baroness Ashton of Upholland studied sociology at university before starting a career in British politics, eventually becoming leader of the UK's Labour Party in the House of Lords. 

She was appointed EU commissioner for trade in 2008 (EURACTIV 22/10/08).

  • 26 Jan.: Parliament to vote on full Commission. 

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