Ashton doesn't know how to delegate - claims commission source
by Justin Stares
Europe's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is struggling to handle her huge workload and needs someone else to take the strain, according to those who work alongside her. PublicServiceEurope.com reports from inside the bunker
For many in her home country, Catherine Ashton is a Labour life peer with a very large salary - around €24,000 a month - who was appointed, not elected, to head up the European Union's ineffectual diplomatic corps. For many outside of Europe on the other hand, Ashton is the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. In North Africa and the Middle East, she is the embodiment of a position jointly agreed by 27 member states. In short, she has clout.
But those who work inside the Brussels bubble are less concerned with image. EU officials have been assessing Ashton's attempts to make her mark within the vast decision-making machine as she lays the foundations of Europe's External Action Service. So how has she fared since taking office in 2009, as far as her colleagues are concerned? According to a source close to European Commission President JosÚ Manuel Barroso, Ashton faces two criticisms from within; though only one is of her own making. First, she has no deputy. In retrospect, this is probably a design fault of the Lisbon Treaty - the agreement that led to the creation of her post.
"If she had a deputy, that person would need to have the same double-hat that she has," says the commission source, who asked not to be named. "He or she would need to be able to talk in the name of both the commission and the European Council. It is a very powerful position. The natural deputies would be the commissioners who already deal with issues on her patch, like Kristalina Georgieva, the commissioner for humanitarian aid, or Karel De Gucht – the commissioner for trade. But the council would find it difficult to accept a second person with a double-hat. Some in the commission might find it difficult to accept too."
Ashton's spokesman, Michael Mann, agrees: "This could well have been a design fault," he tells PublicServiceEurope.com. If the European Parliament needs debriefing on foreign policy, the EU presidency - currently Denmark - can replace Ashton. But this is not really satisfactory because the presidency cannot talk on behalf of the commission. As a result, Ashton has no backup and is pulled around in all directions. Her diary, according to a former aide, is "monster".
Given this problem, Ashton should learn to delegate. This is the essence of the second criticism. "I think that it would have been better if someone with previous private sector experience had got the job, someone like Carl Bildt," the commission source continues, referring to the Swedish foreign minister. "Ashton has been building up the diplomatic service and all of the national governments have been coming to her, asking for their people to be placed in top positions. She should not really be dealing with this. She should be concentrating on the big picture. Someone who had come from the private sector would know how to delegate." But Mann responds: "She does interview for head of delegation positions, but that is because she needs to have people on the ground she knows and trusts".
However, the Barroso source adds: "Ashton is trying to create a foreign service the wrong way round. Historically, the hard power has come first and it has been followed later by the soft power, by the trade and all the rest. There were foreign spies in the courts of all the European kings. But Ashton is having to build the hard power on top of the soft power. It is not the natural way to do things". Mann dismisses this: "It's more logical to start with the soft power. You can build policy from the ground up. Soft power, such as crisis response, can develop into foreign policy."
Ashton's skin is not particularly thick. Past public criticism has caused her to retreat into her shell to the extent that she is currently afraid to expose herself even to written interviews in question-and-answer format with journalists. While she will be unhappy to discover that there is criticism from within the EU machine, it may come as some consolation to know that her colleagues appreciate the difficulties the newly created EU foreign minister role has brought. If this is not enough, she should remember the wise words of another British politician, Enoch Powell. "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs," he once said. If she needs a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, Ashton could always call Tony Blair. Now there is a thought.
The EEAS needs cooperation from member states
The European External Action Service got off to a rocky start but, after two years, there are signs of progress despite the reluctance from member states and other EU institutions to cooperate – writes Adam Hug
The main thing that's wrong with this Blair-baroness is that she is parochially English. She returns to England for long weekends, she is fluent in no language other than English. What on earth was Brown thinking of in setting her up for such a sensitive and important European position?
P. Wadhams - Cambridge UK
In Denmark, all of our human right organisations are not working to protect Danes. That means they
will not take action against broken human rigths in Denmark. Banks returns my sums from foreign areas and all are spying on me. The police let spying run ahead of private business for everyone.
Otto Rasmussen - Copenhagen,Denmark, investigator