I stand accused of being a negative, complaining blogger.

I have not been a fan of Cathy Ashton’s work as the EU’s High Rep, wrote that she should go as early as January, have analysed her current predicament, and have even raised a few smiles at her expense.

While Ashton’s position might be weak and called into question in Brussels, the means to remove her – unless she resigns of her own accord – are very complicated, and would need more political capital from the European Parliament than MEPs look like they are ready to muster. Even if she were removed, the process of working out how to replace her would be a major headache.

So the likelihood is that she stays. So what should she actually do? How about some positive solutions?

First of all there needs to be some honesty from Ashton, ideally presented in a set-piece speech. She needs to publicly acknowledge that there are very major challenges to overcome – politically and organisationally – in European Foreign Policy. Her current approach of continually making vague yet positive statements needs to end immediately, for it is looking more ridiculous with every passing week.

Second, Ashton needs to ask for a pause of at least 6 months during which her focus must uniquely be on the administrative side of the functioning of the EEAS. The process to take basic decisions needs to be streamlined and improved, and she needs to seek some leniency from the Member States and the Commission to get the EEAS in order at an administrative level. She need not travel the world, nor make a statement on everything and anything during this period.

Third she needs to work out who she trusts, and put at least some of those people in her cabinet. As an old friend recently said to me, “Ashton, unlike people like Bildt, Stubb or even Hague hasn’t spent long nights over years and years contemplating the intricacies of foreign policy.” She hence needs to surround herself by plenty of people that have, and to trust these people and to delegate to them. This might ruffle a few feathers in national capitals who may end up not represented in her inner circle, but so be it.

Relating to the third point, Ashton needs to address the low morale and staffing disorder that currently reigns inside the EEAS. Basic systems – HR, document management, security – still do not function well enough, and while these problems dog the everyday lives of civil servants the EEAS is never going to be a success. From the top Ashton needs to foster a ‘we’re all in this together’ sort of approach.

Fourth, Ashton needs to get her communications in order, by employing a decent speechwriter, and by improving the web communications of the EEAS. Some attention to her body language, and a more sober and authoritative dress sense would also be welcome.

Fifth, her timekeeping needs to improve – an unfortunate reputation of turning up late is now well known. Of course circumstances change, but contingency plans need to be made for every eventuality or delay, and for this trust in close staff (my third point) is vital. The accusation has also been levelled at Ashton that she simply is not in Brussels enough, and not often present in the College of Commissioners. While work-life balance is important, even for Europe’s foreign minister, moving her family to Brussels might help matters.

So there, in short, is a recipe for her to improve her approach: honesty, administrative competence, staff trust, communications and time.

Photo: European Parliament “Debate: EU diplomatic service under the spotlight” May 11, 2011 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution


  1. @Jonathan – I was a bit uneasy commenting on the dress issue, but on balance included it. European Citizen has a point in response, and I would also point to Angela Merkel – no-one would ever bother to comment on her appearance in work (I’m aware of controversies outside work) and that’s precisely how Ashton should also approach it. If you’re a politician of unquestioned stature (Nelson Mandela for example) you can get away with more.

    As for EEAS and its lack of organisation – see this from EUObserver and what Member States are saying on this. Plus I am not making allegations of lack of organisation within the EEAS without doing my research on it – it’s just that I cannot (for obvious reasons) quote my sources directly.

  2. Very good post and analysis of what she should do. Frankly, I don’t know why these senior commission officials – who have big salaries and basically can’t be fired – don’t “go rogue” and tell the truth more often. That means, most often, contradicting the national governments (or blaming them for lack of policy) and frankly stating when a consensus is looking.

    I hate the goddamn amorphous pseudo-consensus of euro-mush the Commission normally peddles.

    Incidentally, the Commissioners have been doing this more. There was Reding and the Roma, Ciolos on GMOs, Barnier on having a single EU president and Barroso on Denmark. I hope it continues and Ashton follows their lead!

  3. European Citizen

    @ Jonathan

    Interesting point about women and what they wear. Still, maybe when she visits foreign countries with different dress code for women she could try and show some sensitivity? (e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12289080 )
    There are relatively strict rules regarding business dress code for men and women. Certainly a man dressed in a pink jacket and red trousers in the parliament would provoke comments; why should we treat women differently? And don’t even get me started on some female MEP assistants, I think they deserve an entire blog post 🙂

  4. Jon, as a self-declared ‘feminist’ I find it strange that you of all people would seek to critique and denigrate a womans fashion choice. Too many commentators (99% men!) think it is totally acceptable to do this. Cathy has many flaws when it comes to substance and working methods, but to think that putting on a black trouser suit will fix this out is wrong and patronising.

    I would also say that my impression of staffing at EEAS is not how you described. Yes, issues do exist around HR management and full integration of Council, MS and EC staff, but nothing significantly more problematic than I have found in the EP (following Assistants Statute) and in certain Executive Agencies like TEN-T or EACI. I think to take six months out to sort it would be wrong and be the final nail in her coffin.

    Yes, she needs a new Comms team, and yes she needs to seek a new agreement with MS so she can take a more flexible approach to situations. If she concentrates on substance and policy this will make a world of difference.

  5. Here in Brussels I’ve heard that her office lacks a sense of cooperation with the outside world. And that she may get some problems with the Poles who will hold the next Council Presidency, not least because they have quite a strong agenda on defence which Ashton didn’t seem to focus on very much (which is why I don’t believe she can just focus on the internal work of the EEAS over the next 6 months).

    That’s probably just EU bubble gossip, maybe spread to weaken her. But it’s spread, and if it reaches me it will reach others, too.

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