The EU's foreign policy: The test for Ashton and Europe
Foreign affairs is back at the forefront of the European Union, for the moment at
least. The euro crisis is in a chronic rather than an acute phase, and no big
decisions on the euro are expected at summit. Time, then, to consider the
political crises around the EU’s rim, from Belarus’s rigged election and violent
suppression of opposition protests, to unrest in Albania and, of course, the spread
of the anti-government protests—the “jasmine revolution”—across North Africa
and the Middle East.
These represent a big test of the ability of the External Action Service, the EU’s
“foreign ministry” headed by Catherine Ashton, to respond to unexpected events.
Twice, the baroness spoke before the cameras. On the way to a meeting for
foreign ministers in Brussels, she made no mention of the need for Egypt to hold
“free and fair elections”. Only at the end of the meeting did she come forward
with this exhortation.
One draws two lessons from this. First, for a foreign minister Baroness Ashton is
strangely allergic to the media, especially what her officials call the “Brussels
bubble". She has reluctantly had to step into its the limelight because of the
pressure of events and because of complaints about her lack of visibility. French
papers have resumed the stream of criticism of the baroness, whether for
allegedly stitching-up top jobs (in French) in favour of Britain and its allies, or
because of her alleged lack of vision. “Mme Ashton est nulle” (“Mrs Ashton is
useless”), Le Monde reports (in French) one senior French official as saying.
Second, she is averse to sharing leadership with her fellow foreign ministers.
Even as the Americans had shifted their position at the weekend to call for an
orderly transition to democracy in Egypt, and even after the leaders of Britain,
France and Germany issued a joint letter calling for elections, Mrs Ashton was
reluctant to call for a free ballot. Diplomats say this is because she feared she did
not yet have consensus among the 27 states. Is this admirable respect for
smaller member states, who had not yet expressed themselves, or is it a
The statements issued at the end of the meeting offer some intriguing contrasts.
The foreign ministers announced a visa ban and asset freeze against senior
Belarussian officials and confirmed similar measures against the Ivory Coast’s
president, Laurent Gbagbo, and his entourage. They announced their intention to
impose “restrictive measures” on members of Tunisia’s former regime. Officials
say this means a freeze of assets, starting with those of ex-president Zine al-
Abidine Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi. “The council salutes the courage and
determination of the Tunisian people and its peaceful struggle for its rights and
democratic aspirations,” said the ministers.
The words for Egyptian demonstrators were more guarded. “The council
recognizes the legitimate democratic aspirations and grievances of the Egyptian
population. These should be listened to carefully and addressed through urgent,
concrete and decisive measures.” There were no sanctions imposed on President
Hosni Mubarak, even though scores of protesters have been killed by his security
forces and even though his rule has been far from democratic.
Why the difference? In part, this is because Tunisia’s leader has fled and the
current government has asked for the seizure of his assets, while Mr Mubarak
remains in office. In part, also, the reason is that Tunisia is seen as much more
secular than Egypt. There is an unmistakeable worry that the main beneficiaries
of a genuinely free and fair election in Egypt would be the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian wing of the movement today proclaims itself to be peaceful and
democratic, but the Brotherhood has in the past produced violent jihadist
offshoots. The Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, Hamas, turned violent in
the 1990s and popularised the use of suicide bombings—and then won Palestinian
elections. It still runs the Gaza strip, despite Israel’s blockade.
Israel is plainly alarmed by the prospect of Islamists taking power on their
border, even though its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was once a loud
advocate of democracy in the Arab world, calling it a precondition for peace.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, concedes that the situation is “fraught
with danger” but argues that, in the end, the outside world had to show “faith in