Europe’s Chief Diplomat Talks Brexit, Feminism and the Future of the EU

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In the spring of 2010, Lady Catherine Ashton moved from a leafy London suburb to running Europe’s foreign policy in Brussels as the most senior European diplomat and the highest paid female politician in the world. Her appointment at the time was an improbable choice and a surprise even to her allies.

As Ashton took over the reins and settled into her new role as Europe’s first foreign minister, she was met with acerbic criticism and charges of inexperience from the press. To this, she gave scant attention and instead vowed to win people over with the results of her work.

“It is a measure of my surprise that I have not prepared a speech,” Ashton told The New York Times following her nomination. “Am I an ego on legs? I am not,” she continued. “Judge me on what I do, and I think you will be proud of me.”[1]

Ashton’s five years on the job saw her negotiate a reconciliation agreement between Serbia and Kosovo after years of war, cement United States-European Union (EU) relations, and bolster the diplomatic effort to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

This work ended up converting some of her harshest critics. “Let’s admit we were all completely wrong,” wrote the political editor of The Telegraph, a major British newspaper that had previously published an op-ed terming her nomination “the most ridiculous appointment in EU history.”[2], [3]

In a wide-ranging interview with the Yale Journal of International Affairs on the one-year anniversary of her departure from office, Ashton reflects on the vicissitudes of her term. We talk of the more frustrating foreign policy challenges that she faced, the possibility of her own country voting to leave the European Union this summer, and how she felt as the only woman in a room with the European Union’s twenty-eight male foreign ministers.

We begin by discussing the future of the European Union, a topic on which Ashton is surprisingly sanguine despite her own country’s referendum on leaving the body, and other EU members’ discussions of retrenchment. There are also the challenges of rising refugee flows, growing demands to limit immigration, and a seemingly unsolvable European debt crisis. Ashton, however, believes that the European Union will weather these storms and remain intact.

“It’s not surprising that issues come and go,” she says, referring to Brexit—Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union this June. “As long as we can do [renegotiations on Britain’s membership] in the context of still continuing to be part of the bigger project, I don’t think it will dramatically affect the European Union. But I do think it will awaken in others their desire to also fiddle around with some changes that they would like to see.”[4]

While cautioning against complacency, she seems confident that the Brits will vote to remain in the European Union[5]: “I think the opportunities for business, the challenges that would be faced in redrawing the economic boundaries of Europe, in having to rethink trade agreements across the world, of having to rethink the common market, will in the end make people move away from actually making that decision [to leave the European Union].”

She also defends charges that the European Union undermines the authority of national governments, particularly on foreign policy matters. “We never had a vote in my five years [on foreign policy],” she says. “We didn’t need to. We always found agreements; we always found good agreements. It wasn’t dumbing down, it was actually raising up the level of what we did and that’s a pretty good way of doing things. It’s not about losing sovereignty for nations in this context; it’s about adding to what they do individually.”

You’ll be thinking about the Middle East on the first day and you’ll be thinking about it on the last day, and nothing will have changed”. 

As we finish talking about the future of a common Europe and begin to discuss another topic, the Middle East peace process, Ashton’s enthusiasm is more tempered. Israel-Palestine was the most intractable subject of her time in office, Ashton feels. She tells me with a smile, “When I started the job, somebody said to me, ‘You’ll be thinking about the Middle East on the first day and you’ll be thinking about it on the last day, and nothing will have changed.’”

Ashton ignored this warning at first, beginning her term with a stalwart commitment to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by the United States and brokered with the EU’s assistance. Four weeks into her role, she headed to the region, publishing a clarion call for action in a New York Times op-ed on her return. “Peace is urgent and it is achievable,” she wrote.[6]

Ashton continued to support U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to resume talks in 2013-2014, with promises of economic aid, increased access to EU markets, and security assistance as part of a final status agreement. “I think the efforts that John Kerry has made in recent times have been absolutely extraordinary,” she tells me. “He put huge effort and time and energy into trying to achieve this. And I think he came as close as anybody can do in these times.”

A final status agreement, she says, will require much more than resolving the substantive issues of land swaps, refugees from 1948, and border security. Local political incentives and emotional barriers must be overcome, which is where the real difficulty lies. “I still think and believe that it is not impossible to do,” she says diplomatically. “But it requires political will, not just from the parties involved, but also from a lot of other people around them.”

In a follow-up question, I ask how much the failure of Kerry’s talks came down to leadership in the region. In response, Ashton moves away from the Middle East, instead offering some general musings on the temptations of short-termism in politics. But her comments apply equally to the current leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of whom seem unwilling to make the political concessions required for an agreement. Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party won last year’s election in Israel on a campaign that precluded the possibility of a Palestinian state. “I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel,” he said, although he has since retracted these comments.

“Sometimes it’s easiest to do nothing if you’re a leader,” says Ashton. “Because actually the status quo doesn’t hurt you as a politician, and making changes can be uncomfortable, and you can lose power.”

Lady Ashton balances this pragmatic understanding of realpolitik and political incentives with a seemingly limitless capacity for optimism. Her experience reconciling two former warmongers (Serbia and Kosovo) and  engaging Iran diplomatically have taught her that diplomatic perseverance can help to bring about the most unlikely of agreements, she says.

Even on the two issues where she displays comparatively less enthusiasm (Israel and Syria), Ashton’s impulse is to return to the negotiating table. “Syria has been extremely challenging and horrible,” she tells me. “It’s been a story that has gone on far too long.” Before long, however, Ashton assumes a more positive narrative, terming American-led meetings to broker a ceasefire “probably the best hope we’ve had for a long time.”

“No doubt on reflection people will come up with things that perhaps if they’d been done earlier or differently,” she continues, in response to a question on whether European countries should have taken actions to arm the moderate Syrian opposition before the formation of ISIS, or to implement a no-fly zone in northern Syria. “There are lots of things that will have happened and gone on, that when we look back we may be able to give a better analysis. I think at the moment it’s quite difficult to establish whether we did things too late or whether indeed having done something earlier would have made a difference.”

There is a paradox in Ashton’s leadership style. In spite of such strongly-held beliefs on the possibilities of diplomacy and two foreign policy victories (Iran and Kosovo) she has shied away from commenting on her own work. She rarely addressed the media during her tenure and tended to avoid even one-on-one interviews. Why did she eschew the kind of press attention that pervades the lives of colleagues in similar roles?

To her critics, this was a sign of a vacuum of European leadership; for supporters, it was an indication of modesty and hard work behind the scenes. Either way, Ashton is an anomaly in today’s politics: Shunning media attention and free from the forces of election cycles, she was able to build immense trust among diplomatic partners and win colleagues over with an understated British charm that her admirers had lauded back when she was first nominated for the post.

“Being out of the limelight is quite helpful,” she says. “Because if you’re in the limelight people have expectations that you’re going to be seen to be leading and not responding to what member states want, that you’re going to be in a sense promoting yourself, and that was never something I was particularly interested in.”

She continued, bringing an end to the interview: “I was interested in, ‘Could we create something that would be useful for the countries of the European Union, helpful to our allies with whom we worked, and [that would] add weight to what needed to be done in the world?’”

“I think we started that, but that will be judged of itself in the years to come.”

About the Interviewee

Lady Catherine Ashton served as the first High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy from 2009 to 2014. In her capacity as the EU’s leading diplomat, she oversaw the normalization of the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo and represented the EU in the negotiations that led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Previously, she served in the British Cabinet as Leader of the House of Lords, and as the European Union High Commissioner for Trade.

Interview by Josh Jacobs, Editor in Chief

For the video interview segments, please visit this link 

[1] Stephen Castle and Steven Erlanger, “Low-Profile Leaders Chosen for Top European Posts,” New York Times, November 19, 2009.

[2] Nile Gardiner, “Baroness Ashton as EU Foreign Minister,” The Telegraph, November 20, 2009.

[3] Peter Oborne, “We Were All Wrong About Baroness Ashton. She May Save the Iran Nuclear Talks,” The Telegraph, September 27, 2013.

[4] This interview was recorded in November, before the referendum date was announced.

[5] Catherine Ashton, “Lessons From a Gaza Trip,” New York Times, March 21, 2010.

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