The EU's Ashton and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem last September.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has spent most of the day under attack from Israeli leaders for allegedly comparing the killing a four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse yesterday to the death of children in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military.
Ashton’s spokesmen have vehemently denied she was drawing a comparison between the two and was simply listing places where children have been violently killed, including the recent death of Belgian students in a bus crash, the shooting of Norwegian students last year by a right-wing extremist, and the Assad regime’s assault on Homs.
One problem: almost 24 hours after the speech was given, someone in the EU bureaucracy noticed the transcript posted by the European Commission’s communication team was incorrect. In the list of places cited by Ashton was also Sderot, the Israeli town near the Gaza Strip that has been targeted by Palestinian militias with rocket attacks.
The new version of the transcript still leaves out some of Ashton’s rhetorical flourishes, so Brussels Blog put together its own transcript of the section in question, which can be viewed in this video around minute 12. Read more
Finn Olli Rehn, last week in Davos, has been seen on Finnish media by 45% of his fellow countrymen.
In Brussels, being a member of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, is about as high as an official can climb in the eurocracy. But just how well are those Brussels luminaries known back in their home countries?
Thanks to the commission itself, we now have a good idea. According to a telephone survey conducted by Eurobarometer – the results of which haven’t been published, but were presented to commissioners during a meeting Tuesday – the best-known is Finland’s Olli Rehn, the economic commissioner who has been in the press almost constantly thanks to the eurozone crisis. He also contemplated running for president of Finland last year, which undoubtedly helped boost his score.
According to the survey, obtained by Brussels Blog, 45 per cent of Finns said they had seen or heard Rehn in the media, far ahead of the rest of the commission – including its president, Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso, who finished 9th with 31 per cent of Portuguese respondents saying they’ve seen the former prime minister on local media.
At the bottom of the list were commissioners from two of the largest member states: France’s Michel Barnier, who only 8 per cent of French respondents said they had heard or seen, and Britain’s Cathy Ashton, who came in at 16 per cent.
The complete list after the jump. Read more
Tuesday saw Catherine Ashton at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. But leaving Brussels did not mean a vacation from the torrent of criticism that has rained down on the European Union’s first foreign policy chief.
Just after Ashton finished debating Syria, Libya and other foreign policy hot spots with MEPs, Franziska Brantner, the German Green who serves as the parliamentary group’s foreign policy spokesperson, released a blistering critique.
“EU foreign policy is suffering from a chronic lack of direction, leadership and imagination under Cathy Ashton’s watch, despite the fact the union today has more foreign policy competences and instruments than ever,” said Brantner, long an advocate of the new EU diplomatic corps. “Clearly, Cathy Ashton is failing to grasp what her job is.”
A good chunk of the Brussels press corps is in Berlin this week for an annual trip by foreign media to meet German government leaders. On Tuesday morning this included a session with Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, where he vociferously defended the embattled Cathy Ashton.
Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has come under surprisingly public attack recently for her handling of the north Africa crisis, particularly from Belgium’s foreign minister Steven Vanackere, who made a rare public rebuke of her performance last month in a Belgian newspaper interview.
But Westerwelle insisted Berlin, at least, was on her side. “Germany and myself, we will support Cathy Ashton,” he told the motley group of Brussels-based journalists who had assembled at the foreign ministry. “She has our full support and especially my personal support.” Read more
Thursday’s catastrophic defeat for Britain’s Liberal Democrats in local elections has led to speculation that Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, may get the heave-ho and replace Catherine Ashton, the UK’s member of the European Commission and EU foreign policy chief.
The speculation appears based on not much more than it making some logical sense: Clegg is a Brussels veteran, having served as an MEP and aide to Leon Brittan when Brittan was a European commissioner in the 1990s. And Ashton continues to bear the brunt of intense criticism for her performance as foreign policy chief, recently suffering an unexpected broadside from Belgium’s foreign minister. Read more
As the international community prepares for a gathering of political leaders in Qatar next week to discuss the crisis in Libya, it is worth watching the recent travels to Brussels and other European capitals of Jean Ping, head of the African Union commission. Read more
Who is having a good crisis over at the European commission’s Belaymont headquarters?
Probably not Gunther “Apocalypse” Oettinger, the energy commissioner, whose dire remarks about the Japanese nuclear situation were an embarrassing example of publicly pouring fuel on an unstable reactor. Not Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, whose aide told reporters that a no-fly zone over Libya was both impractical and unwise – only to be overruled a short time later by Britain and France.
While it is still early days, the buzz among eurocrats is that one commissioner who has proved effective in these troubled times is Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva. Read more
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, heads off for a tour of the Middle East and North Africa today – a trip that’s expected to include both Tunisia and Egypt – after coming under quite a bit of criticism for her handling of the upheaval in the region.
But the criticism has not all been in one direction. Ahead of her trip, a senior EU official briefed the Brussels press corps and laid some of the blame for the frequently discordant European reaction to recent events in the laps of national foreign ministers.
“One of the difficulties that we have is making sure that we not only speak with one voice but act with one voice,” the official said. “I mean, how many foreign ministers are in the Middle East now? It’s a bit complicated. The high representative wants to go, but can she go the same day or the day after when three foreign minsters have been? To do what? It’s a real problem.” Read more
Setting up the European Union’s new diplomatic service was never going to be easy. Turf wars between the EU’s 27 member-states and the European Commission were inevitable, and the ever meddlesome European Parliament was certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to stick its oar in. But if the EU doesn’t get this right, the world’s other big powers will never be convinced that the Europeans are serious about operating a coherent common foreign policy. Read more
President Barack Obama’s decision not to travel to Spain in May for a US-European Union summit does not come as a great surprise to EU policymakers. They knew weeks ago that he had gone cool on the idea. Nonetheless, it will hurt. It will be read as a signal from the White House that the president doesn’t think the meeting would be especially productive. And that speaks volumes about how other powers, even allied countries such as the US, view the EU as a force on the global stage.
“An unsentimental President Obama has already lost patience with a Europe lacking coherence and purpose,” wrote Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro in a report last November for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. “In a post-American world, the United States knows it needs effective partners. If Europe cannot step up, the US will look for other privileged partners to do business with.” Read more
As with many things involving the European Parliament, there is an air of unreality about this week’s confirmation hearings of the nominees to the next European Commission. It would be entirely mistaken to think that the process bears much resemblance to the kind of rigorous hearings that presidential appointees are obliged to undergo in the US Senate. To judge from the proceedings so far in Brussels, the questions asked in the European Parliament’s committees are far less probing, and the nominees are able to get away with answers that are at best platitudinous, at worst utterly incoherent.
There are some honourable exceptions. The best performance has been that of Belgium’s Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner-designate, who wasn’t afraid to speak frankly about his opposition to a carbon border tax, a policy favoured among others by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Equally authoritative were Spain’s Joaquín Almunia, who will run the important competition portfolio, and Finland’s Olli Rehn, responsible for economic and monetary affairs. This trio looks set to be the powerhouse of the next Commission, along with France’s Michel Barnier, the internal market commissioner-designate. Read more
As of today the European Union is going about its business under a new set of rules known as the Lisbon treaty. In Brussels this is universally seen as a good thing because, to quote Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-presidents of the European Parliament’s Greens faction, the treaty “sets the framework for increased European democracy, better decision-making, higher levels of transparency and closer participation of European citizens”.
Well, perhaps it does and perhaps it doesn’t. One thing’s for sure: the new arrangements strengthen the European Parliament – hence the enthusiasm of Harms and Cohn-Bendit. But the Lisbon treaty’s reforms are like the ingredients of a good dinner. Use them intelligently, and all will be well. Forget to put in the garlic and the peppers, and it will taste terrible. In other words, wise leadership and a sense of responsibility to something higher than one’s domestic political audience are going to be necessary to make Lisbon work effectively. Read more
So it looks as if it is to be Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister, as the full-time president, and Catherine Ashton, Britain’s EU trade commissioner, as the foreign policy supremo. This is the culmination of eight years of efforts, starting with the EU’s Laeken Declaration of 2001, to reform the bloc’s institutions and give the EU a more dynamic world profile.
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, thinks the EU had a historic opportunity in its grasp and flunked it – at least as far as the full-time presidency is concerned. The British government itself was saying more or less the same thing until tonight. It was adamant that the EU needed a big-hitter as president to convince the rest of the world that the EU was going places. Now it has participated in a classic EU trade-off that has produced exactly the result it said would be no use to anyone. Read more