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Catherine Ashton answers Henry Kissinger’s call

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once famously asked, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” The appointment of Catherine Ashton as the EU’s first foreign policy chief last year was Europe’s long-awaited response to that question. Together with the appointment of Belgium’s Herman van Rompuy as president of the European Council, Ashton’s elevation to the position of high representative of foreign affairs and security policy was seen as one of the crowning achievements of the Lisbon Treaty, enacted on December 1, 2009.

The surprising appointments of both Rompuy and Ashton, however, were widely criticized. Rather than “stopping traffic in Beijing and Washington” (David Miliband’s vision for the kind of global recognition that he thought the EU’s top representatives should garner), both politicians were widely perceived as inexperienced technocrats who would be hard pressed to slow traffic even in their respective hometowns.

When former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair was passed over for the job of EU president, complex horse trading ensued, with the U.K. successfully negotiating first dibs on the foreign policy position that was eventually awarded to Ashton. (A position that has incidentally made her the highest paid female politician in the world, with an annual salary of £328,000 or $515,000).

Despite professing their commitment to democratic ideals, Rompuy and Ashton are not elected officials; rather, both were appointed via a byzantine process of backroom lobbying and clandestine negotiations. This unseemly bit of political theater exemplified the opaque political process that has served to alienate European constituents from their representatives in Brussels, and undoubtedly contributed to the public’s ire over the selection of “Rumpy and Frumpy” (a nickname bestowed on the duo courtesy of Fleet Street).

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Though virtually unknown in Europe and her native U.K. at the time of her appointment, Ashton has enjoyed an enviable career trajectory that has seen her advance from a junior minister position in Tony Blair’s government to European trade commissioner (appointed by Gordon Brown) in eight short years, before taking on her role of EU foreign minister in late 2009.

A coal miner’s daughter raised in Upholland, Lancastershire, Ashton is the first member of her family in several generations to finish university. Her early career is distinguished by her advocacy work on behalf of single-parent families, underprivileged children (she ran the Labour party’s early education program, Sure Start, for two years) and gays (she was named Politician of the Year in 2006 by the Stonewall group for her efforts to advance equal rights).

When asked about how her background in domestic social justice prepared her for her role as EU foreign minister, she said, “The issues that countries are [currently] grappling with are issues that I recognize very well from my life as a minister. Health, education, justice, human rights are fundamental to the way in which we work on partnering with the U.S. in supporting development across the world.”

She added, “I sometimes think that everything I did before was a very good training ground for the work that I do now.”

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Ashton’s critics are quick to point out that she has no experience in foreign affairs and has never held an elected position. In the first year of her tenure, much has also been made of her poor command of French, her low “visibility” in post-earthquake Haiti, her absence at the (already imperiled) Mideast peace talks and her halting progress in getting the new EU diplomatic service off the ground. To say that her term has gotten off to a rough start would be a kind understatement.

Yet, some have also started to question the gloves-off treatment she has received in the press. The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman reevaluated his initial impression of Ashton earlier this year after seeing her speak in Brussels. He wrote, “She was fluent, articulate, poised … True, she said nothing that was interesting or memorable. But, I’m afraid, that just shows she is doing her job well.” The broad-swipe at EU politics notwithstanding, Rachman’s belief that sexism is to blame for the backlash warrants some merit considering the disproportionate amount of ink that has been devoted to covering the high representative’s appearance and signature “British dentistry.”

Still others point to the heightened state of anxiety surrounding the European project as being partially to blame for the choppy currents that Ashton now finds herself navigating. After all, the Lisbon Treaty and its goals of shaping a common foreign policy were drawn up in comparatively flush times and must now be implemented when national coffers are empty and governments across Europe are enacting unpopular austerity measures to reduce deficits and keep bond-market vigilantes at bay.

Some find it ironic that just as the 27 member states of the European Union were finally able to ratify the Lisbon Treaty in late 2009 after a painfully drawn-out process, the 16-member eurozone found itself embroiled in a sovereign debt crisis so acute that it threatened to take down the euro and imperil the whole of the European Union by mid-spring. As countries like Germany dithered on the particulars of a bailout package for Greece during the spring, it became apparent that the “ever closer union” that was to be facilitated by the common currency and Lisbon Treaty had not yet taken hold in the way the EU’s founding fathers had hoped.

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So, do Europeans still buy the idea of Europe? Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that, “a united Europe no longer captures the imagination of many of its residents,” thanks, in part, to the “continued pull of nationalism.” Haass says that if Europeans were really serious about uniting around a common foreign policy, member states would take concrete steps to consolidate foreign policy decision-making power. He suggests, for starters, that the British and French trade in their U.N. Security Council seats for an EU seat — a scenario unlikely to transpire anytime soon.

Ashton’s official line regarding Security Council representation and EU multilateral diplomacy is, “[The EU] is not about taking away from member states. It’s about adding on to what member states do. For the European Union, it’s about the added value of when 27 come together.” Critics may roll their eyes at this diplomatic side-step – after all, some sacrifice of national sovereignty will eventually need to be made if the EU is to evolve as a tighter political union – but Ashton’s sanguine attitude is arguably borne of a practical recognition that she is at the very beginning of a process that will take years to unfold rather than naiveté about the political costs of greater European integration.

To underscore that point, Ashton now invites current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to dial her number — but warns that she will be prompted to “press one for the French position, two for the German position, three for the U.K., etc.”

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I met with Ashton, or Baroness Upholland as she is also known (Blair made her a life peer in 1999), at the U.N. headquarters in New York City during the 65th U.N. General Assembly. We discussed her plans for establishing an EU diplomatic service by year’s end, coordinating an EU defense strategy with NATO and addressing Turkish accession to the EU. She also offered a few choice thoughts about her critics.