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Difficult Challenges Ahead as Baroness Ashton Passes Parliament Hearing

posted by eucentresg

21 January 2010

Since the beginning of the last week, much of the activity within the European Institutions centered around the European Parliament (EP). Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been “grilling” the 26 commissioners-designate, including Baroness Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who will also be the Vice-President of the European Commission.

It is a very crucial test for the nominated commissioners, because the MEPs can reject the proposed Commission as a collective body, if they consider any single candidate unsuitable. So far, after questioning all 26 nominated commissioners, parliamentarians have expressed their discontent with Bulgaria’s Rumiana Jeleva, who failed to answer charges of conflict of interest and provided unsatisfactory answers on various policy issues. Ms Jeleva announced her resignation on 19 January, and Bulgaria has already nominated another candidate, Kristalina Georgieva, currently vice-president of the World Bank. However, it is still unclear whether Ms Georgieva would be given the same portfolio (humanitarian aid and crisis response). There are many suggestions that a reshuffle could take place, because two other commissioners-designate – Finland’s Olli Rehn and Dutch Neelie Kroes – during their first hearings gave performances, which EurActiv called ‘unconvincing’. The vote of confidence on the new Commission is scheduled for 9 February.

If the problems with Ms Jeleva’s appointment have raised a hurdle for Mr Barroso, the outside world was more interested to observe the hearing of Baroness Catherine Ashton on 11 January, where she called for “a stronger and more credible European role in a fast-changing world”. Notwithstanding some small blunders (like admitting her lack of knowledge when asked whether the EU should have its own seat in the United Nations Security Council), she avoided errors that might put her appointment at risk. Although the MEPs are unlikely to reject her, she failed to impress a number of deputies who said that “there was a certain lack of ambition to make [the] office strong” (Alexander Count Lambsdorff) and that there is “no reason for enthusiasm” (Elmar Brok).

Assuming the Commission is approved, the most difficult challenges for Baroness Ashton are still ahead, both within and outside the EU. In fact, the biggest difficulties for the EU’s foreign policy chief will be internal, at least in the first half of the year 2010. There are at least three major challenges that she will have to deal with:

First, the coming months will be crucial for establishing the institutional balance in the complex and multi-layered governance system created by the Treaty of Lisbon. Baroness Ashton will have to find her place between Herman Van Rompuy, the new President of the European Council, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister, whose country now holds the rotating presidency, and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. Although Mr Van Rompuy will be primarily concerned with forging consensus between 27 Member States within the EU, he will also chair summits with third countries. Mr Zapatero, however, has managed to arrange that many of the summits will take place in Spain. Mr Van Rompuy, in return, has made it clear that once Spain’s Presidency finishes, all future summits will be held in Brussels, as stipulated in the Treaty of Lisbon. (Incidentally Belgium will be holding the next rotating presidency from July to December 2010.) These first signs of incoherence indicate that much will depend on the personal chemistry between the top EU representatives.

Second, Baroness Ashton will have to take a determined stance with regard to the Member States. The Programme for the Spanish Presidency states that it “will fully support all the new High Positions so they can exercise their competencies under the best possible conditions”. However, the practical arrangements between Baroness Ashton and, for instance, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos are yet to be established. This will be observed very carefully by other Member States which will still want to exercise their influence through the rotating Presidency and other channels. The choice of Baroness Ashton, a low-profile candidate with no foreign policy experience (one year of serving as EU trade commissioner is her only international experience), already indicated the unwillingness of some of the Member States to relinquish their leverage in foreign affairs.

Third, Baroness Ashton will have to set up the European External Action Service (EEAS), the new pan-European diplomatic service with representations throughout the world. Baroness Ashton has expressed her preference that the EEAS should be independent of other EU institutions, apart from its budget that will form part of the general EU budget and will be entirely under the European Parliament’s control. She will have to work on a legislative proposal, which would set out the functioning of the EEAS, its budget, areas of competence, and recruitment procedure. After consultations with the European Parliament, the proposal will have to be adopted by the European Council by the end of April 2010. This process will involve much contention between the institutions that are to provide its staff: the European Commission, the secretariat-general of the European Council and the national administrations. Some of the Member States have already accused European Commission of wanting to keep out national diplomats from senior EEAS positions.

Outside the EU, Baroness Ashton will have to work hard to make the EU’s voice heard on the international stage. This will test her diplomatic skills and repeatedly voiced belief in “quiet diplomacy”, when dealing with issues like non-proliferation, counter terrorism, human rights, energy and climate change. In the parliamentary hearing, Baroness Ashton said that Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, Somalia and Yemen were at the top of her list of priorities. Among other priorities, she mentioned the EU neighbourhood, the Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, the Caucasus and the Mediterranean. Asia seemed to be missing from her priorities though she added that her first foreign visits would be to Washington DC, Moscow and Beijing.

Time will tell whether Baroness Ashton can live up to expectations despite a rather reserved beginning and help the EU present a stronger and more coherent voice. But she cannot do everything alone; it is the political will of EU leaders that will be decisive in the coming months.

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