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News Analysis: If You Need To Talk To Europe, Call Ashton

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton looks on as Moldovan Prime Ministe Iurie Leanca (left) shakes hands with European Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht after the signing of an Association Agreement between Moldova and the European Union.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton looks on as Moldovan Prime Ministe Iurie Leanca (left) shakes hands with European Commissioner for Trade Karel de Gucht after the signing of an Association Agreement between Moldova and the European Union.
BRUSSELS -- A few weeks after Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi was deposed in a military coup in July, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was taken, without bodyguards or aides, first in a helicopter and then in a car with its windows blacked out, to the unknown location where he was being held.

To date, she is the only Western official who has spoken to Morsi since his ouster. "Can you imagine this happening to anyone else, say [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry or the foreign minister of France or Britain," an EU official who asked not to be named told RFE/RL. "In a sense, this shows her status both in a positive and a negative way."

Appointed as the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy in 2009, Ashton has often found herself in the spotlight in 2013, signaling the bloc's emergence from the economic and consequent political crises of 2008 as an essential foreign-policy player.

Following several difficult years -- which saw Brussels struggling with a financial crisis, the U.S. pivot toward Asia, and crises in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings -- Ashton, and the EU's foreign policy, began to hit its stride in the past twelve months, according to analysts.

"...In 2013 I think we have seen a different sort of a year, not only for Ashton herself but also for European foreign policy," says Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). "The particular successes of the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, which culminated in April, and the Iranian deal in November both represented areas where the EU was playing a very pivotal strategic role."

In April, Kosovo and Serbia signed a landmark agreement to normalize relations, while in November Ashton was at the center of talks that achieved a significant, if short-term, breakthrough on the international talks over Iran's disputed nuclear program.

Personality And Style

Ashton is also now playing a central role in the troubled efforts to revive an Association Agreement between the bloc and Ukraine.

The EU's successes in recent months, observers say, are a tribute both to Ashton's personal attributes and to the fairly effective foreign-policy apparatus she has established within the European External Action Service (EEAS), the bloc's newly formed foreign policy bureaucracy.

"We should acknowledge that Baroness Ashton has succeeded in setting up a fully-fledged body -- the European External Action Service -- in a fairly short time, with relatively scarce resources both financially and from a human point of view -- including, of course, the difficulty of the amalgamation of staff coming from different sources," says Andrea Frontini, a policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels.

In addition, Ashton's personality and style have also played a major role.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reportedly insisted that the foreign ministers of global powers come to Geneva for talks in early November instead of talking only to Ashton. But after that meeting collapsed, Zarif told Ashton he would only talk to her -- an approach that ultimately contributed to the November 24 breakthrough agreement.

Ashton looks on as Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic (left) shakes hands with his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci during talks in Brussels earlier this month.
Ashton looks on as Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic (left) shakes hands with his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci during talks in Brussels earlier this month.

Analyst Dennison notes that both the Kosovo-Serbia deal and the Iran talks were the results of "years of planning" and "strategic patience."

One EU official who asked not to be named added that Ashton's reluctance to talk to the media also played a key role in both these successes.

She only gave one interview after the Kosovo-Serbia deal and hasn't spoken to the media about the Iran deal at all since it was signed.

"Imagine [Swedish Foreign Minister Carl] Bildt or [Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw] Sikorski," the official said. "They wouldn't stop tweeting or talking about it."

Nonetheless, foreign policy for the EU remains a challenge.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once famously quipped, "Who do you call when you want to talk to Europe?"

According to Dennison, the issue of competing and contrasting agendas among EU member states remains crucial and can cripple the EU's effectiveness.

"Syria is one area where in the second half of this year Europe's role has been completely sidelined and the real actors who are making an impact there are the U.S. and Russia," she says.

The reason for this ineffectiveness, she adds, is differences in approach between Britain and France, on one hand, and most of the other members on the other.

In contrast, analyst Frontini suggests the Kosovo-Serbia deal was a successful example of "good teamwork [among] member states."

The situation regarding the European Union's Eastern Partnership and Kyiv's hesitation on whether to sign the Association Agreement is less clear cut. Part of the problem stems from the fact that when the EEAS was established, significant competencies usually associated with foreign policy -- such as trade and development aid -- remained the prerogatives of the European Commission.

Surprising Consensus

The Eastern Partnership -- which develops EU relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- is not technically part of Ashton's remit, although she has participated in the political-diplomatic element.

Edward Lucas, international editor at "The Economist," argues that, although the program has been problematic since its conception, in recent months the bloc has been able to build a surprising consensus around it.

"We've finally got the EU, including countries that are traditionally not very interested in the East, [treating the Eastern Partnership as a priority]," he says. "We made this into the big thing for the EU and got a lot of political and bureaucratic weight behind it."

Going forward, the issue of unity remains a challenge for the European Union, particularly during fast-breaking crises. Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar with Carnegie Europe in Brussels and a former Austrian diplomat says that members still "insist very much on running their own foreign policy and that will not go away quickly."

However, he argues, the trend is for increasing unity as "even the bigger countries realize that they can do less and less by themselves."

However, some analysts say Ashton -- whose term of office expires in October 2014 -- has made the most of the tools at her disposal in overcoming such difficulties as the effects of the global economic crisis and the inherent divisions within the EU.

"Ashton has also succeeded somewhat in maximizing the effectiveness of what I would describe as the EU's declaratory power -- sort of, its soft power through statements," says Frontini. "This has been somewhat instrumental in at least giving an image abroad of a more united EU foreign policy and in this, I think, Ashton has been quite good."

Rikard Jozwiak reported from Brussels; Robert Coalson reported and wrote from Prague

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