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Lady Ashton takes flak in EU diplomatic battle

By Laurence Peter
BBC News

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Lady Ashton
Lady Ashton is grappling with deep-rooted national rivalry in Brussels

The EU's longstanding ambition to punch its weight on the world stage has not been helped by some undiplomatic criticism of the EU's new foreign policy chief, British peer Catherine Ashton.

In devastated Haiti this week, she will be haunted by French regrets that she did not go there immediately after the January earthquake which killed at least 220,000 people.

France's Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche said she should have used her new position to "wave the flag for Europe" in Haiti, to match US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who did go to the former French colony promptly.

Similar criticism came from French MEP Joseph Daul, leader of the biggest conservative bloc in the European Parliament - the European People's Party (EPP).

Lady Ashton - officially called the EU High Representative - retorted that she had checked with the UN, who had advised her against visiting while urgently-needed aid flights were trying to land.

UK diplomatic coup

According to UK Labour MEP Richard Howitt, "there is a lot of sour grapes among European foreign ministers that Lady Ashton was appointed".

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Lady Ashton - to the surprise of many observers - got one of the two plum jobs created by the Lisbon Treaty. After years of Westminster politics, she had served just one year as EU trade commissioner and had not held a top foreign ministry job.

She will need all her negotiating skills as she handles a diplomatic hornet's nest in Brussels.

She is meant to be the EU's "foreign minister", commanding a new - but still embryonic - team of some 6,000 diplomats, called the European External Action Service (EEAS).

She aims to have a detailed plan for the EEAS ready next month. But a senior EU diplomat told the BBC that "there is still a lot of work to do" on it and "they haven't yet nailed down fully what the structure will be".

It is agreed that one-third of the EEAS staff will come from the European Commission, one-third from the EU governments' joint "foreign office"- called the Office of the High Representative - and one-third from the 27 member states' administrations.

A Danish career diplomat with long experience of Brussels politics, Poul Skytte Christoffersen, is now Lady Ashton's top aide. He will help her make the key appointments to the EEAS and organise the service.

Pressure for transparency

Lady Ashton has the task of building consensus between the EU's institutions while ensuring a balance of gender and nationality in the EEAS, a spokesperson for her said.

New EU ambassador to Washington, Joao Vale de Almeida (pic: European Commission)
Mr Barroso's former top aide is now the EU's man in Washington

The new member states in Eastern Europe, under-represented in the EU bureaucracy, are especially eager to get more of their diplomats appointed.

The EEAS budget and staffing levels also have to be agreed with the European Parliament.

"The parliament will push for as much transparency as possible" in the recruitment process, Mr Howitt said. He is on the parliament's foreign affairs committee, which aims to be fully involved in launching the EEAS.

Lady Ashton's choices will be closely scrutinised after she controversially appointed Portuguese diplomat Joao Vale de Almeida as EU ambassador to Washington.

The move was criticised by France and Sweden, irked that the right-hand-man of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso - himself Portuguese - had got the much-coveted job.

Lady Ashton admitted that "two or three member states" would like to have been more involved.

She has had an inordinate amount of criticism in a very short time
Richard Whitman
Professor of politics, University of Bath

She inherits the mantle of the veteran Spanish diplomat Javier Solana. But she has extra responsibilities, as she also represents the European Commission abroad.

Work in progress

The commission offices in the world's capitals are being converted into EU embassies - a process expected to take years. But they are not expected to take on consular duties such as issuing visas or work permits - prerogatives jealously guarded by the member states.

The criticism of Lady Ashton, coming so soon after her appointment, reflects confusion about her role, according to Richard Whitman, professor of politics at the University of Bath.

"Lisbon has created confusion about the powers that fall to her," he told the BBC.

"She has had an inordinate amount of criticism in a very short time. This is a very sensitive area for member states. They can easily get offended if she appears to privilege one institution over another."

That sensitivity was on show last week, when Lady Ashton was criticised by ministers from France, Spain and the Netherlands for failing to attend an EU defence ministers' meeting. Mr Solana, it was noted, always went to such meetings.

She had a double-booking - and opted to attend the inauguration of the new Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych. That role could have been performed by Mr Barroso or the new European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy - but they were otherwise engaged.

"The EU needed to send the right political signal to the new administration in Ukraine - that's why she went," her spokesperson told the BBC.



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