Ashton

Understandably overshadowed by the Greece rescue agreement last week was the much smaller piece of news that Lady Ashton’s spokesman, Lutz Güllner, is stepping aside. He is departing just four months into her new job as Europe’s first foreign policy chief.

At first reading, this seems like further fallout from Lady Ashton’s rough early tenure, in which she’s come under attack for everything from a weak response to the Haiti crisis to a poor command of French. But I think it tells us something more. Read more

Two thoughts spring to mind when you consider the appointment of João Vale de Almeida, a Portuguese Eurocrat, as the European Union’s next ambassador to the US.  The first is that the EU seems to be retreating from its experiment of placing a political heavyweight in Washington to speak up for Europe.  John Bruton, the EU’s outgoing envoy, is a former Irish prime minister whose face was well-known in the White House and on Capitol Hill when he got the job in 2004.

Vale de Almeida is familiar to certain US officials – he has been the European Commission’s top liaison man for G8 and G20 meetings.  But as a civil servant who started his career with the Commission in Lisbon back in 1982, he has never been elected to office, has never served as a government minister and altogether lacks the profile of someone like Bruton.  Americans are already struggling to recall which two figures were chosen last year as the EU’s first full-time president and new head of foreign policy.  Now they have a third obscure European name to remember. Read more

Whether it’s climate change, foreign policy or the increasingly alarming fiscal crisis, the European Union’s difficulties can be summed up in one word: disunity.  After December 1, when the EU’s Lisbon treaty came into force, disunity was supposed to be a thing of the past.  Instead, disunity has proved to be very much a thing of the present.  What’s more, the Lisbon treaty may – at least in the short term – be making matters worse.

Take the world conference on climate change at Copenhagen in December.  According to Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s incoming climate change commissioner, disunity – in the sense of a cacophony of European voices – was an important factor behind the ability of other powers to brush aside the EU’s views.  “Those last hours in Copenhagen, China, India, Japan, Russia and the US each spoke with one voice, while Europe spoke with many different voices.  Sometimes we spend so much time agreeing with one another that when finally the EU comes to the international negotiations, we are almost unable to negotiate,” she told her confirmation hearing at the European Parliament last month. Read more

Are they just teething problems?  Or is something more serious at stake?  One way or another, the first signs are emerging that the European Union’s new foreign policy structures, established under the Lisbon treaty that came into force last month, are capable of producing just as much discord and disharmony as the old arrangements.

Let’s take the EU’s response to the Haiti earthquake.  Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, convened an emergency meeting on January 18 at which the 27-nation bloc quickly and efficiently agreed a generous aid package for Haiti worth over 400 million euros.  At a news conference after the meeting, she was asked if she would be visiting Haiti and, if not, why not.  She replied that she wouldn’t be going, because the United Nations had requested her and other foreign dignitaries to stay away in order not to disrupt the emergency aid effort.  However, Karel De Gucht, the EU’s outgoing humanitarian aid commissioner, would travel to Haiti.  A perfectly sensible response. Read more