Sunday 17 January 2010

Ashton: foreign policy will be conducted "as appropriate".

Baroness Ashton's hearing was probably the most watched one, even though it was widely predicted that she would pass through easily, due to the cross-party and cross-member state deal on her candidature. But the lure of hearing what the views of someone entering the foreign policy arena for the first time, and of hoping to see some indications of how she would attempt to shape EU foreign policy drew an audience.

So how did she do?

To some people, she was a disappointment - there was no strong commitments or statements on policy in any single area. At most, the western Balkans - and Bosnia and Herzgovina in particular - where indicated as a priority, while every other foreign policy issue was, the MEPs were assured, of great importance and would be considered carefully. On one hand, it was a frustrating hearing - these are easy and natural things to say, and they hardly tell us anything that we couldn't already tell from a glance at the EU's interests in its own region. But then again, it's hard to know what we should expect from a foreign policy hearing. An incoming foreign minister (or high representative) doesn't want to annoy possible partners and allies, and you don't want to go around talking about strategies openly. The HR position also has the problem that a unanimous coalition has to be built up at home (or at least a position that nobody wants to veto) before the HR can set about implementing a policy.

Still, the liberal use of the phrase "as appropriate" in her answers means that already vague replies were rendered almost meaningless. The most interesting single statement was a strong-sounding statement against Iran building nuclear weapons, and in favour of non-proliferation regimes.

MEPs didn't exactly preform well: they may have been going easy on her to protect the deal over her candidature, but more searching and specific questions could have been asked to get a better feel of her personal attitudes, which would no doubt shape her tenure. MEPs had a strange obsession with getting the right to hold hearing and vet the appointment of senior EU ambassadors - which Ashton repeatedly, and sensibly, refused.

Towards the end the Green MEP Ulrike Lunacek made a good point - we want to know what Ashton is like, we don’t want an ambassador for 27 foreign ministers. While it's impossible to leave the 27 foreign ministers out of any equation, I don't think we got any deeper into what kind of HR Ashton will be, than the image of the "quiet diplomat" that she has been promoting over the last few weeks.

Indeed, the most important foreign policy statement we may have heard from the hearings could have come from the hearing of the Energy Commissioner-designate, Oettinger. Apparently, he wants the EU to deal with energy deals - ending bilateral treaties between member states and third parties. If the EU were to sign energy treaties collectively, then the EU's market size would come to bear, and it would upset Russia's "divide and rule" strategy when it comes to gas.

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