Ministers have Ashton lined up in crosshairs

By Catherine Field

Baroness Catherine Ashton cut her political teeth on a British county health authority before becoming a protege of Tony Blair, who made her a life peer and junior minister before dispatching her to Brussels as one of Britain's two European commissioners.

In December 2009, to widespread astonishment, the obscure Labour Party loyalist landed the coveted post as the European Union's first Foreign Minister, tasked with implementing the EU's foreign and defence policy around the world.

Now, only a year after she launched the EU's External Action Service (EAS), she is in everyone's crosshairs.

In a confidential letter that has leaked to the press, 12 of the 27 EU foreign ministers say, in diplomatic terms, that Ashton is a disaster. They say her department lacks focus, neglects security and defence issues, is hampered by bureaucracy and is mired in a turf battle with the European Commission.

Among those who signed the document are top-drawer foreign ministers from France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Sweden.

They also criticise Ashton for the chaotic, last-minute organisation of her monthly meeting with foreign ministers.

"An EU delegation can function effectively only if the head of delegation receives all necessary information in good time and can fully focus on political priorities, and if a delegation can manage its administrative expenditures efficiently," the ministers say.

The letter is couched in polite terms and described as a suggestion for improving the EAS. But its target and the depth of concern are clear.

A wide perception in Europe is that last year Ashton failed to muster a strong and coherent response to crises ranging from the revolutions in North Africa and the bloody crackdown in Syria to Iran's nuclear programme.

Last December, Ashton placed last in a survey by European parliamentarians on the performance of 11 EU commissioners. Nearly one in two said she was ineffective.

Among the rumours circulating in Brussels, one involves Ashton calling foreign ministers to a last-minute summit in March last year, only then to head for the door halfway through the meeting. Reports of the incident said Sweden's Carl Bildt, one of the most respected voices in European diplomacy, insisted she remain until the end of the talks.

Ashton's year-long work to set up the EAS has been hit by headlines about cost and appointments. Last year the EAS had a budget of €464 million ($746.7 million), and it will be increased by 5 per cent this year.

The service has 3611 staff, of which more than half are based in its foreign missions. Most have been transferred from the European Commission.

In a written response to the ministers' criticism, Ashton argued that the string of momentous events in 2011 was "hardly the ideal backdrop for the launch" and pointed to several important administrative problems.

But she said the year had had high points, including headway in defusing areas of tension in the Middle East. Relations between the EAS and the Commission were "satisfactory", she said.

Others point out that Ashton's job, set up under the Lisbon Treaty, is tailor-made for a tug-of-war with other power players in Brussels.

The EAS can propose and implement policy initiatives, but approval for this has to come from the foreign ministers of the 27 member-states.

It has to share competence in several areas with the European Commission, which has its own foreign policy staff under President Jose Manuel Barroso.

The European Council, the ministerial-level body which wields most power in the EU, adds to the cacophony. The council has a president, who is the Belgian Herman van Rompuy, and each of the 27 EU states has the right to chair the council under a six-month rotation. Both of these can claim, in their way, to represent Europe on the world stage.

RAPID RISE

Born: Catherine Margaret Ashton in Upholland in Lancashire, England in 1956. She will be 56 in March.

1983-89: Director of Business in the Community, a group set up to encourage companies to have a positive impact on areas like the community and the environment.

1998-2001: Chaired the Health Authority in Hertfordshire, north of London, and became a vice president of the National Council for One Parent Families.

2001: Made parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Department for Education and Skills.

1999: Became a life member of the upper house when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and took the title Baroness Ashton of Upholland.

2007: Appointed Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council in Gordon Brown's first cabinet in June.

2008: Appointed European Union Trade Commissioner.

2009: Named EU Foreign Minister.

- NZ Herald

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