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Hand To Mouth

High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton says the bloc is "simply asking for the fact of Lisbon to be recognized."
The EU suffered something of a rude awakening last week when the UN General Assembly refused (at least for a year) to grant it collective speaking rights at UN debates.

The bloc wanted its representatives -- the president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton -- to be able to address the world like any leader of a sovereign state.

Wheels came off that plan when a coalition of mostly developing countries, led by the Caribbean nation of Suriname, submitted a competing motion of "non-action."

The EU's representative will now address the 65th UN General Assembly in New York today as an "observer," relegated to the end of the speaker roster.

"Europe Humiliated," the Belgian daily "Le Soir" summed up on September 21 what had happened.

The all-too-obvious irony lies in the fact that African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) nations are the principal recipients of EU development aid. The EU, in turn, is the world's foremost provider of development assistance. The bloc is also a strong backer of the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG), a bid to eradicate extreme poverty, reducing child mortality and fighting epidemics in the developing world. The MDG is badly reeling from the effects of the global crisis, with even richer nations struggling to honor their commitments. A three-day MDG summit is concluding in New York today as a prelude to the UN General Assembly.

Reacting to the vote, Ashton last week came across as if she thought there had been a mistake: "We are not asking for anything new. We are simply asking for the fact of Lisbon to be recognized."

The Lisbon Treaty, adopted in December with the intention of giving the EU a stronger global voice, has clearly not been the kind of giant step for mankind the bloc had hoped. For the UN, the EU remains bracketed with the African Union, the Arab League, and other regional organizations. Giving one speaking rights could open the floodgates of precedent, runs one argument.

"Le Soir" on September 21 looked at reasons for the EU's downfall. Could it be the blocked WTO trade liberalization talks? Or the EU's agricultural policy (arguably designed to beggar farmers in poorer countries)? Or the bloc's restrictive immigration policies? The Belgian daily observed that there is an increasing number of "big mouths" in the G77 group of developing states -- Venezuela, Libya, China, India, Iran, Brazil -- keen on scoring points against the developed world.

A report by the European Council for Foreign Relations released on September 21 notes that the EU is steadily hemorrhaging allies in the world: "One hundred twenty-seven out of 192 members of the UN typically vote against EU human rights positions, up from 117 last year."

Could it be that the "soft power" EU is just the most convenient whipping boy for the all the ills -- real, perceived, and suspected -- besetting the disadvantaged parts of the world?

If so, the bloc's entire global outreach strategy is in urgent need of review. Last week, Ashton said the UN reverse was not a "serious setback." Behind closed doors, EU governments are said to be furious. But they are equally at a loss as to what to do next. Ashton's instructions, reportedly, are to tread softly and quietly. But surely there can't be a better case for putting one's mouth where one's money is?

-- Ahto Lobjakas

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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