Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Haiti: does it matter that Ashton isn't "on the ground"?

Haiti, the EUobserver reported, is showing how Ashton will conduct foreign policy:

" Ms Ashton's office already leapt into action on Wednesday (13 January) as news emerged of the scale of what looks like the worst natural disaster since the Asian tsunami in 2004.

Ms Ashton chaired a meeting in Brussels of European Commission officials from the foreign relations, development and environment departments as well as experts from the EU Council and the Situation Centre, the EU member states' intelligence-gathering hub.

The meeting agreed to trigger €3 million in emergency aid, signed off by development commissioner Karel de Gucht, and to look into further financial assistance, such as advance payments from the commission's €28 million annual development budget for Haiti.

It also decided to send officials from the commission's environment department to the earthquake zone to assess damage and to task an environment department unit to co-ordinate pledges from Belgium, Sweden, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Norway, Iceland and Luxembourg to send personnel and equipment."

But what got the most attention was Ashton's "failure" to visit Haiti personally. Her reason? That it was already hard enough for aid to get through without her travelling to the disaster zone. Did this satisfy MEPs? Of course not:

"The head of the centre-right group in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul, said that the fact that Mrs Ashton was not present while her US counterpart Hillary Clinton travelled to the Caribbean island over the weekend was "regrettable." Just about everybody was in Haiti at the moment when these people are suffering, and Europe was not present," he said. "If it would have been in our hands, we would have sent someone."

To date, MEPs on the right have held their fire on Ms Ashton, who has the extra backing of the 27 EU countries, which unanimously appointed her to be the union's high representative for foreign affairs. The member states' deal was a careful compromise between left and right which saw the post of President of the European Council, the EU's other main external actor, given to a centre-right politician.

His attack on Mrs Ashton was later backed up by the leader of the Greens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

"I am very sceptical about Lady Ashton," said the French politician. "Her performance vis-a-vis the situation in Haiti has been insufficient and I think that what Mr Daul said in his communication today was not wrong."

Mrs Ashton's job means that she is supposed to be the public face of the EU in the case of an international crisis and to oversee the bloc's response. On Monday, the EU pledged over €400 million in aid to Haiti."

It's hard to see any practical difference that an Ashton-visit would have made. There is a pan-EP obsession with political symbols, to the extent that they seem to value symbolic tours of disaster zones rather than focus on any practical benefits in aid co-ordination. The inferiority complex with the US, and comparisons with Clinton have to stop: Ashton works in a different institutional environment, and it makes far more sense at this stage to focus on small, practical policy steps that provide actual benefits than wasting energy on political symbolism. Last week MEPs wanted to see a foreign minister, not an ambassador for 27 foreign ministers - well, what separates the two is that the former tries to coax the levers of power into action, while the other just represents on the spot.

MEPs should focus on policy, not PR.


  1. Good grief. For once I feel sorry for Lady Ashton. She's damned if she does and damned if she don't.

    Do these EMPs want aid or photo-opps? Or just another opportunity to sound-off about Lady A?

    Maybe she should visit in about a month's time to check how the money is being spent?

  2. I don't see what she could have done. It reminds me of the fuss in Russia in 2000 when the Kursk submaribe sank and Putin stayed where he was in the south instead of going to Archangel. 'Get on it. You know where I am if you need me,' he told his managers and engineers.

  3. I agree with Ashton for not going. The ressources that are being spent in Haiti should be used wisely. No ressources should be wasted to organize the visit of a high representative; all the manpower and money that can be saved should go directly into helping humans on the ground. Lady Ashton has all the communication means she needs; she doesn't have to be on the ground to show her presence.