French minister lashes out at Ashton Ukraine visit

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France's defence minister criticised the European Union's foreign policy chief for attending the inauguration of Ukraine's president on 25 February, rather than chairing an EU meeting.

The defence ministers' meeting was their first since Briton Catherine Ashton took over as the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy under its Lisbon reform treaty, and was attended by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

"It's quite rich that this morning, at the first meeting of defence ministers after the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, that when we talked of the relationship between the EU and NATO, the NATO secretary-general was there and not the high representative," Morin said at the meeting in Palma de Majorca.

EU officials said Ashton was in Kiev for Thursday's inauguration of President Viktor Yanukovich. They made no further comment.

Since EU leaders selected her last November, Ashton has faced criticism for her perceived slowness to react to the Haiti earthquake and for what is seen as a lack of experience.

Another French official, EU Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier, was quoted by media last month as making critical comments about Ashton, and French media have been critical of her. Barnier later expressed confidence in Ashton.

Ashton also faced pressure this week to explain why the bloc had appointed an ambassador to Washington without member states being widely consulted.

France has long been a champion of an expanded EU role in defence, while Britain has placed more emphasis on the role of NATO, the Western military alliance that includes 21 EU countries.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

On 22 February, EU ministers discussed strategies with Ukraine, as the country has now a new president, Viktor Yanukovich, seen as pro-Russian (EURACTIV 22/02/10).

Even before the ministerial meeting, it was already known and acknowledged by French diplomats, that Ashton would not preside over a meeting of defence ministers in Palma de Mallorca, as the inauguration of Yanukovich the same day.

Diplomats said this was the first example of how overstretched Ashton would be, as her duties combine those of former High Representative Javier Solana, External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and EU foreign ministers.

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