BRUSSELS -- Catherine Ashton, the European Union's new high representative for foreign policy, says that reforms in the bloc's immediate neighborhood will be her key priority. Such reforms, she said, will be vital in furthering the bloc's ambition to play a greater role in the world.
In her maiden speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg today, Ashton -- who has come under fire for failing so far to give the bloc's foreign policy a clear shape or purpose -- said the EU must become a major player on the international scene, to protect its interests and values, and to respond to the "enormous" global demand for its presence.
"Our wider international credibility also depends on getting our neighborhood right," she said.
But the EU's top diplomat had little of substance to say about how the bloc would go about it. She mentioned the United States and Russia only to refer to visits and meetings to the two countries. On Ukraine, Ashton noted her recent visit to Kyiv and said she wanted to deepen the EU's relationship with the country.
During her speech, Ashton showcased the EU's involvement in Georgia since the August 2008 war between Tbilisi and Moscow. There, she said, "the EU has demonstrated what we can do when we fully mobilize the resources we have."
Ashton mentioned the EU's immediate response to the conflict, the truce it brokered, the 300 monitors deployed, and the Geneva talks -- involving Russia, Georgia, and its two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- where the EU is one of the mediators. The focus now, Ashton said, is on building stability and security in Georgia and the region, going on to list the EU's main current areas of contribution.
"We work on trade, on visa liberalization, and we support measures to rebuild the ties with breakaway republics," she said.
However, Georgia and the EU have so far only negotiated a visa facilitation accord, which will make getting EU visas easier but will not abolish them -- as "visa liberalization" implies.
Ashton said the EU has a "full agenda" when it discusses Georgia with Russia -- her only reference to Moscow in this context.
Ashton's other highlights of recent EU successes were Bosnia and the Horn of Africa region.
Much of the debate in Strasbourg today centered on the External Action Service (EAS), which with its prospective 8,000 diplomats could become a major EU foreign policy instrument.
But Ashton has been unable to prevent infighting from breaking out for control of the EAS between the European Commission, the EU's semi-autonomous executive arm, and the member states that jealously guard their sovereignty in foreign policy matters.
The EU's top diplomat is partly hamstrung by her job description, which gives her a "double-hatted" role making her simultaneously answerable to the commission and the member states.
Charles Tannock, a senior British conservative deputy, today warned the EU now risks falling prey to the same kind of "introspection" that blunted its foreign policy during the last years of the previous decade.