Finally, an Answer for "Who Speaks for Europe"?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/12/2010 12:01:00 AM
Her ad lib lines were well-rehearsed
But my heart cried out for you

About two months ago, Baroness Catherine Ashton, Baroness of Upholland, came to speak here at the LSE on "Economics and Politics post-Lisbon." I must sheepishly admit to dubbing her the "EuroPalin" after replacing the much-vaunted Peter Mandelson as EU trade commissioner after he was recalled home to shore up support during Gordon Brown's dying days as prime minister. Whereas Mandelson and Brown certainly need no introduction on the world stage as the architects of New Labour [RIP], Ashton was largely unknown outside of Labour ranks. Hence my initial reaction of a lady being picked from obscurity and with little experience for her role alike the aforementioned Palin.

Nearly two years have passed since she replaced Mandelson at the EU. In the meantime, she has also become the very first High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. In the post-Lisbon scheme of things, she is second only to Herman von Rompuy who is President of the European Council. Still, I cannot honestly say that she's left her mark as either the trade commissioner or, subsequently, the foreign affairs chief.

Perhaps it's Eurosclerosis still at work since her office is very new and she has yet
to find her wings. There's also the considerable financial turmoil that's roiled the EU--much ado about nothing, I believe--leaving matters unsettled. However, it's with some interest that I note Ashton is a pretty good public speaker. Alike with the Rod Stewart lyrics quoted above, I must admit she comes across well despite deploying what are by now well-worn lines about herself and her job. I should know--she used them in her LSE presentation, and also in this latest "Lunch with the FT" entry.

My favourite is the question of whether she can finally speak for the entire Europe as per former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asking, "Who speaks for Europe?" Apparently, things are not quite yet as clear cut as she jokingly notes...
Expectations, she says wryly, are what she would change about the job, which was created more than eight years ago when the EU’s member states were high on prosperity and keen to tackle the long-term confusions and failures of EU foreign and security policy. They wanted a heavyweight figurehead, backed by a strong diplomatic corps, so that the EU, an economic superpower expanded to 27 nations, could speak with a coherent and unified voice. The question supposedly asked by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, “If I want to speak to Europe, who do I call?” would finally be answered with a single name and number...

This easy break into humour proves typical of Ashton’s informal manner. Her own favourite joke about the Kissinger question is meant to hammer home a warning. She says the Americans do now have a number to call for Europe, but that they will hear Ashton’s voice (a soft Lancashire accent) asking them to “press one for the French position, two for the German position, three for the UK, etc.” She is at the beginning of a process of creating an effective voice for Europe, she explains, and that will take time to achieve. “For now we are building the foundations.”
I suppose it's only fair--she's still pretty new to the job, having just taken it near the end of last year. I also like this one about her response to being named a baroness:
As she points out herself, Ashton’s main problem in her current role is that she does not meet people’s preconceptions of a foreign affairs supremo. She likens it to a film audience’s shock at seeing an unconventional actor cast as their favourite character in a novel. High representative is a grand role but grandeur is not her style – she also plays down her peerage, quoting how one of her daughters had once explained to a teacher that her mother’s title meant “something between a politician and a princess”.
Also note her perception that China does want a single European voice representing the EU-27 to talk to as well as the EU's more impartial stance in Palestine. Indeed, she even hints at--who would've guessed--international political economy in the process:
So, I ask, did the EU really miss out when it didn’t have one person and one institution to talk to? “China particularly has made it clear to me that they are keen on having an interlocutor that is European with whom they can talk about things that affect all 27 countries. I have been at great pains to say it is not instead of bilateral relationships, but there are things that we do together where we are stronger, and the obvious example is trade.” She is proud of being one of the first politicians allowed into Gaza since the building of the wall, and frank that the “clout” she enjoys there is because of €1bn in aid spent in the Palestinian territories. “I call this job, ‘Where politics meets economics’, and it’s important that we bring the two together,” she says.
A person ends up in a position to do great things often not by accident but by making their own luck. For Europe, I certainly hope her affable character can be used to create recognizable and coherent EU foreign policy.