The diplomat the whole world ignores
Catherine Ashton heads a wasteful, top-heavy and ineffectual project costing European taxpayers half a billion pounds a year. She's a living metaphor for the EU as a whole
It was like an assignation in a spy thriller. A helicopter picked up the middle-aged woman in the early hours and flew her to a secret location deep in Egypt. Then she was whisked to a military base, where she met an infamous Islamist hidden from the world for a month.
Afterwards, the woman faced the world's press to reveal that Mohamed Morsi, the elected president overthrown in a controversial coup by his army generals, was in good health. She refused to divulge details of their two-hour conversation — "I'm not going to put words into his mouth," she said a little pompously — but threw in the tidbit that Morsi, held with two advisers, had a well-stocked fridge and access to television.
It was Baroness Ashton's finest moment in the four turbulent years since she took on her job as the European Union's top diplomat, becoming then the world's highest-paid female politician despite never having faced an electorate. For all the achievement of becoming the first foreign dignitary to see the Muslim Brotherhood leader since he was toppled, she has little to show for her time in the job, despite clocking up an impressive number of air miles.
Her tenure has been scarred by backbiting and blunders as she has built an extravagant empire of Eurocrats around the world. Yet it seems largely pointless and ineffective, despite having 139 "embassies", 3,417 staff, 650 cars and costing close to half a billion pounds each year. Catherine Ashton's creation, the European External Action Service (EEAS)-a legacy of the controversial 2007 Lisbon Treaty — is part of Europe's ambition to seize control of foreign policy. It is typically wasteful and top-heavy: at least 50 officials earn more than our own Prime Minister's £142,500 salary.
Brussels has rushed to set up outposts in some of the world's most exotic locations such as Barbados, Belize, Fiji, Samoa and the Solomon Islands. The latest office is in Luanda, Angola, one of the world's most expensive cities; annual rent alone is expected to exceed £1 million while staff get lucrative perks such as business-class flights home.
Her army of overseas officials take so much time-off — up to an incredible 19 weeks a year — that an EU audit last year found offices supposed to promote European interests empty much of the time. "Some posts are effectively half-time posts for which a full-time salary is paid," the report damningly disclosed. "A state of affairs which must be seen in the context of very high net salaries and the provision of accommodation free of charge."
Meanwhile, Ashton's office spews out 600 statements a year but is crippled by the fear of offending any of the EU's 28 member states. She failed to condemn the coup in Egypt, then issued a pathetically limp response to Robert Mugabe's election theft in Zimbabwe and has been irrelevant over the Syrian crisis. Her mantra is "quiet diplomacy" — but insiders put it more harshly. "Low-key to the point of ineffectual is how most of us sum it up," said one British bureaucrat in Brussels.
Now, as Ashton prepares to retire from her £287,543-a-year post with a fat taxpayer-funded pension, EEAS is ignoring austerity with a 3.2 per cent funding rise while it attempts to grab more power. Meanwhile, spending cuts have left Britain's Foreign Office with a smaller budget than Kent County Council.
"The EEAS, like all European institutions, seems intent on amassing ever more power," said Vincenzo Scarpetta, political analyst at the Open Europe think tank. "Foreign policy is and should remain primarily a national matter." The group argues that EEAS offers limited added value since it can only act on the rare occasions when all member states agree. "It is therefore completely unacceptable that its running cost continues to go up when the Foreign Office and other foreign ministries across Europe are facing budget cuts."
Few of Europe's 500 million citizens would disagree. Indeed, even those working at the Triangle, the vast Brussels complex that serves as Ashton's base and costs £10 million in annual rent, wonder what on earth they are meant to be doing all day. "The atmosphere is very odd," said one. "Officially everybody is meant to be dealing with pressing international problems, but the service's exact remit is far from precise. This means people sit around desperately trying to think up ways of making an impact."
The harsh truth is the affable Ashton, a former bigwig in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, has looked out of her depth for much of the time. Mind you, she can hardly have expected to end up in such a high-profile post, tasked with launching a global diplomatic service after a quiet career in the quangocracy. New Labour patronage handed her power. First she was made a life peer, then sent to Brussels as a trade commissioner. Just one year later she was handed the second-most important job in Europe after a bout of Brussels horse-trading.
She was so little-known that security guards reportedly asked for her ID when she tried to attend the summit at which she was appointed. Afterwards, one MEP commented sourly: "Last year she was unknown in Britain. Today, she is unknown all over Europe."
When Ashton launched EEAS, her spokeswoman said they did not want "a big show". They got a farce instead, with a stream of negative stories emerging of bad management, poor judgment, media shyness and undiplomatic behaviour.
Rumours rippled around Brussels that she refused to take phone calls after 8pm. Gossips whispered she returned home to St Albans at weekends, despite a £38,000 annual accommodation allowance, and sniped at her lack of languages. "Mme Ashton est nulle" (Mrs Ashton is useless) was the harsh conclusion of Le Monde, while its rival Libération merely called her amateurish.
Things were so dire that David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary, offered her advice on how to carry out her job. But after the Arab Spring erupted, the sluggish EU reaction emphasised her inexperience once again.
Ashton's official titles sound like something from a cheap operetta: Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Recently, she compared her job to "trying to fly a plane while still bolting the wings on". She admitted internal battles had led to missed opportunities. As her trip to Egypt showed, she has looked more confident after learning to navigate Brussels and achieving some minor successes over Iran and the Balkans — although she still came under deserved fire for her silence on human rights issues during a trip to Bahrain. British ministers believe her appointment at least ensured Europe's ambitions for a stronger voice were checked, whether due to design or ineptitude. "If Blair or Miliband had got the job they would have asserted themselves far more," said one.
But the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, still had to circulate a warning for British missions to be on guard against the EU's "mission creep". And other Western diplomats have complained that the EEAS just duplicates their own work at huge extra cost to taxpayers.
There remain profound questions over the point of this profligate creation. Despite a network of EEAS offices with nearly 2,000 officials dotted around the globe, Ashton's swollen empire appears to have made little impact on the ground.
In Brazil, for example, the EU stages free festivals, sports events, concerts and film shows. It funds an annual Europe Day regatta in Brasilia, seen as one of the capital's social highlights, with free drinks and paella at a cocktail party afterwards. But the British ambassador there confessed to a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year that he did not see the EEAS "as being central to my daily life" despite its 17 staff in the country.
Now Ashton wants to beef up her empire with a consular role for her "embassies", extra security officials and more control over the EU's notoriously wasteful aid projects. Yet her service was recently savaged for lax control of ¤1 billion of aid frittered away in Egypt.
MEPs have criticised her inconsistent leadership. But they also want the post to have more sway over European foreign policy and to see even more money squandered on staff specialising on issues such as women's rights.
Smaller European nations without such an extensive network of embassies are also keen to expand EEAS's remit, although the likes of Britain and France are hostile to such stealthy encroachment. Ashton, who admits she has found the job exhausting, steps down next year. She will be handed a £400,000 pay-off over three years — which only underscores her failure to keep costs down and ensure her fledgling diplomatic service is "budget neutral".
Despite that dawn meeting with Morsi, she has failed to placate critics. "Can you point to anything achieved by EEAS?" said Douglas Carswell, the Eurosceptic Tory MP, whose first act of rebellion under the coalition was to vote against Ashton's appointment. "I don't like to attack individuals but Europe's foreign policy has been handed to third-rate people running a third-rate organisation that has now got a third-rate track record. It's a tragedy for a continent that once led the way on such issues."
It is hard to disagree with this verdict on one of Europe's most spectacular vanity projects.
Ian Birrell is a columnist, foreign correspondent, campaigner, and co-founder of @africaexpress
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