To be commended, not condemned
Perhaps the most ridiculous criticism that Ashton has been subject to is that she should have travelled to Haiti immediately after the earthquake. French politicians have taken the lead in this attack, noting that President Sarkozy himself made an appearance. Critics point out that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also visited the disaster-struck island soon after the earthquake, and that this would have been a great opportunity for Ashton to show off her new position and symbolize united Europe.
It is peculiar that political leaders feel it is their right and even duty to rush to disaster scenes. In these situations, the best they can do is authorize massive shipments of aid and manpower. Blocking up the only working runway to the country does not justify the symbolic ‘importance’ of any politician. Actions are indeed stronger than sympathetic words when natural disaster strikes – but these actions should be generous aid, not expensive and inefficient VIP visits.
Ashton apparently realized this, or at least had the wisdom to contact the UN for advice. As she and her representatives have repeatedly stated, the UN advised her to avoid blocking up the very limited airspace immediately following the disaster. For respecting this advice, Ashton is to be commended, not criticized.
Someone must be blamed, but not Ashton
Some of the criticisms that Ashton has faced have been legitimate remarks, but they have been directed towards the wrong person. Yes, it is true that Ashton was not elected. Then again, neither were the predecessors of the two positions she now simultaneously fills. This may not be particularly democratic, but it is also not particularly new. Furthermore, it was not Ashton who appointed herself, nor even put herself forward as a potential candidate. If anyone is to blame, it is the very member states that have been launching some of the attacks. She certainly was appointed in a series of secret backdoor deals, but again, this is not a process in which she played any part.
Specific to her profile, critics are indeed correct in saying that she does not have the appropriate nor ideal qualifications for the job. True, Ashton had no prior foreign policy experience, and her only EU experience came from a year as Trade Commissioner. It’s also true that she didn’t take up the new High Representative position as a particularly well-known international figure. However, these again are facts that were very clear to all member state leaders at the time that they made their selection. Her qualifications are not something that Ashton has ever lied or misled EU officials or citizens about. In fact, Ashton’s performance during the January Parliamentary hearings indicated that in just over a month she had made considerable progress in getting a handle on her portfolio. Moreover, she is not the only Commissioner to be underqualified for her portfolio. Consider Germany’s Oettinger.
Legitimate complaints, if they were made
The above points do not mean that Ashton is to be free from scrutiny. On the contrary, she should be held accountable by citizens and by the press the same way that elected officials are held accountable. The significant difference is that she should be criticized for decisions she makes, not circumstances surrounding her appointment over which she had no control.
Hardly anything has been said about Ashton’s cabinet choices. While they have yet to be officially published, the information is already available, and fair questions can be asked. For example, was there not someone more qualified to advise her on the Middle East than Pelayo Castro-Zuzuarregui, whose previous career highlights include administrator (international trade) in the EP, personal assistant to Spanish PM Zapatero, and assistant to the chief correspondent of El Pais in the US ?
The EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy representative should have specific knowledge about and experience with foreign issues, and if she doesn’t, she had better have a staff of sharp experts to compensate for what she is lacking.
Her appointment of Barroso’s former chief of staff João Vale de Almeida as the EU envoy to Washington is another fair target. As a low-key figure in a high-profile post, it is suspected that Barroso insisted on his appointment. De Almeida is expected to push for the Commission’s role in the EEAS, under which he will report directly to Ashton. The motives and influences on this appointment should certainly be questioned.
Recently, German and French officials have expressed alarm and concern over the developing EEAS, in which there seems to be a disproportionate amount of British representation. It’s slightly amusing that the French and Germans are alarmed by moves that they themselves make. France and Germany are hardly shy about it, announcing before Ashton and Van Rompuy were appointed that they would first agree on a candidate so as not to oppose each other during negotiations, suggesting that it would be them who would decide the new positions.
EU Council Secretary General Pierre De Boissieu is notorious for pushing the French position around Brussels, previously dissuading British Chris Patten from seeking Presidency of the Commission, and currently keeping a watchful eye on Ashton. New French Commissioner Michel Barnier has made a series of statements assuring the French press that he will push for the French position in the Agriculture and External Relations portfolios, among others. He is, by the way, the Commissioner for Internal Market.
Of course, no member states should use their EU officials to try to manipulate processes to advantage their own positions. Of course, many member states seek to do this, when the opportunity arises. Nevertheless, just because the French and Germans tend to proceed in this manner, it doesn’t mean that anyone is entitled to, including Ashton and the UK.
Much has been said about Ashton since her appointment to High Representative. Most of the criticisms, however, have been aimed in the wrong direction. Some, such as the one based on the idea that VIP leaders are most helpful on disaster sites, are hardly valid. Ashton hasn’t done much, but she hasn’t done much harm either. Let’s not waste our time nor hers condemning her for things that are out her control, and focus on concrete improvements that need to be made.
Photo : European Commission - Audovisual Service / Baroness Ashton of Upholland