Baroness Ashton flies in to Gaza as EU sneers
The EU 'foreign minister' is facing her biggest test yet – and many hope she will fail
Baroness Ashton, the EU's 'foreign minister', is facing the biggest test of her unlikely career today as she visits Gaza at a time when Israel's relations with the West are at a low and fresh violence has broken out in the region. Across Europe, plenty of journalists and politicos are waiting for the coal-miner's daughter from Wigan to fail.
Ashton has come in for intense criticism since her surprise appointment as the EU's first High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy last year. The role was created in the Lisbon treaty, alongside that of EU president, the job many expected Tony Blair to walk into.
According to some observers, Europe's summiteers, desperate to avoid Blair, opted for a safe nonentity - Herman van Rompuy, a right-of-centre candidate from a small country. This forced them to seek a left-of-centre appointee from a large country for the second-top job and Ashton seemed an innocuous choice – but has ended up a virtual laughing-stock.
When she was told by text message she had been unanimously approved for the job by all 27 European leaders, she was said by her Labour colleague Charles Clarke to be "surprised". Unflatteringly, he added: "And so is everyone else." Even her husband, YouGov pollster Peter Kellner, told German newspaper Der Spiegel that people in the UK were "not exactly dancing in the streets".
And in the three or four months since she took on the job, that outbreak of non-dancing seems to have spread to streets across Europe. The greatest criticism has been reserved for Ashton's late arrival in Haiti, six weeks after the devastating earthquake there. This was seen, especially in the French press, as particularly bad when contrasted to the rapid arrival of Hillary Clinton, in theory her opposite number as the US Secretary of State.
Ashton's defence – that she was told by the UN that travelling sooner would delay efforts to fly in much-needed aid to the region – is sincere and rational, but arguably naive, betraying a lack of understanding of the potential benefits of being seen to act and the realities of international diplomacy. "I am neither a doctor nor fireman," she said, and the French point out that the EU gave four times more aid to Haiti than the US.
Then, in February, she was criticised by defence ministers from France, Spain and the Netherlands – this time for deciding to attend the inauguration of the new Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, instead of an EU defence summit. This week, Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, is reported to have compared her unfavourably to her 'predecessor' (though the job was different), Javier Solana. A recent article in a French newspaper damned her for allegedly switching her phone off at 8pm every evening.
An unnamed source told the Independent that Ashton blames latent EU sexism for much of the criticism. Whatever the truth of this, some of the animosity she has faced in the UK – where she has been dubbed a "complete apparatchik" and "Baroness Wossername" - can be attributed to her attaining high office without ever being elected. And some of it is party-political.
One of Tony's original cronies – he ennobled her in 1999 after getting to know her socially with Cherie through Kellner – Ashton's rise from working class origins in Lancashire to become the highest-paid female politician in the world, and one of the most important, accelerated dramatically when she entered the Lords. After graduating from the Economics and Sociology course at the University of London in 1977, she worked first for CND, then for one of the Prince of Wales's charities.
According to the BBC, Ashton was a "freelance policy adviser" for most of the 1990s, and was chair of Hertfordshire Health Authority when Blair decided to bring her into government via the House of Lords without the tedious necessity of a democratic election.
Ashton became a junior minister in three departments – and was once voted 'Politician of the Year' by human rights campaigners Stonewall for championing equality. Gordon Brown made her Leader of the House of Lords when he became Prime Minister, and it was under his watch that she became the UK's Trade Commissioner in Brussels, replacing Lord Mandelson.
Now the Doctor Who fan – she has a full-sized Dalek in her bedroom – is taking on her biggest challenge, leading the EU's diplomatic efforts to what seems a hopeless situation in the Middle East. She flew to Egypt last night and will visit Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories before going to Moscow on Friday for a quartet meeting, where she will be joined by Hillary Clinton.
If they are disappointed with Ashton, EU leaders have only themselves to blame. If they wanted a low-profile, inoffensive, compromise choice, then that is what – so far – they seem to have got. It is crass hypocrisy to then accuse her of lacking dynamism. ·
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