By Ceyda Erten, Spring 2012 Intern
On April 10, 2012 Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice President of the European Commission, spoke at the German Marshall Fund’s Washington, DC office to a select audience of ambassadors and academics from the area. I had the opportunity to take part at the event thanks to an invitation from my professor at Georgetown University, Prof. Josep Colomer.
Ashton (although she preferred being referred to as ‘Cathy’) focused on almost every broad foreign policy issue related to the EU. The conversation took place right before the Istanbul talks on Iran’s nuclear policy and during the Syrian crisis, so her remarks were shaped primarily around these two topics. Yet, she was very well-rounded in any foreign policy issue one may think of. Although I used to be skeptical about the role of the new “EU foreign minister,” I came to appreciate more what this role entails.
“The US is the EU’s first partner”
Ashton began by briefly outlining US-EU relations, underlining that the EU regards the US as its first and strongest ally. She talked about the significance of the EU’s neighborhood and mentioned two main goals concerning its neighborhood policy: deep democracy and political and economic freedom.
“Democracy is not just about elections,” she said, emphasizing the significance of institutions and a thriving civil society. She argued that political change has to be strengthened by engagement of women. Freedom, according to Ashton, is a combination of political and economic independence. She talked about the EU’s task forces in the MENA region that work with countries to financially support the institution-forming process.
“The EU’s role is to ‘bring together’ a strong political and economic union”
Preemptively addressing some concerns about the EU’s internal stability, Ashton repeated that the EU is committed to “bring together” its members for a stronger political and economic union. She then moved onto talking about Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro and emphasized how crucial are the political and economic stability of these neighboring countries.
During the Q&A session, there were a great many questions about the EU’s (in)capability of helping the resolving of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict. Ashton argued that the EU, by keeping an equal distance to all parties involved, has been doing its best to help form closer ties in its neighborhood. She recognized, however, that there was more to be done.
“The EU is investing more in Switzerland than in China”
When asked about how the US-EU partnership should react to China’s rising as a global power, Ashton stated that the EU’s approach has so far not been very successful. She mentioned that there are more investments from EU countries in Switzerland than in China. However, she said she regards all global powers as “partners rather than rivals.”
Ashton on Turkey and its foreign policy
At every EU-related event in Washington, DC, there is at least one question about Turkey’s EU membership. Not to my surprise, there were three questions from non-Turkish participants in the audience regarding Turkey: two on EU membership and one on NATO.
Ashton, following the footsteps of many EU officials, repeated that “the process of accession negotiations” is very valuable for both Turkey and the EU. She, however, was much more open about where this process is going. When asked a question about whether or not the EU had its “border policy,” she stated that the Union’s border policy will be shaped by its foreign policy. To my understanding, this meant that while there were no set borders to the Union, some countries simply fell under the purview of “foreign policy.”
And that Turkey was an important “foreign” policy partner as of now. Ashton shared that the colleague she talks to the most often is the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. She said that she and her team value conversations with Davutoglu and emphasized that Turkey’s role in connecting the EU with the MENA region is crucial.
Recognizing the Cypriot issue, once again
My question was tangentially (or rather closely) related to Turkey—I was wondering if the EU did “really” bring together a strong “political and economic union” for all of its Member States. To my knowledge, Cyprus significantly lacks such unity and is a member of the very Union that hopes to foster unity. Is the EU avoiding acting upon a conflict that is still going on inside its own borders?
Ashton began by recognizing that the resolution of the Cyprus problem has not yet been successful and that it does pose several problems to the EU’s internal and external policies. She said in representing the EU, she is representing all 27 Member States and that is problematic for her that one state has an ongoing institutional conflict.
She was very sincere about her stance: that she hopes this problem will be solved immediately. However, I doubt any EU official wishes otherwise. The question should focus on the “how” instead of the “what,” and Ashton’s response failed to address the crucial part.
It is fascinating how all parties (the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot leaderships, Turkey, Greece, the EU) repeat the same premise that they all would like the issue to be resolved as soon as possible. And it is even more surprising how almost no tangible progress has been made recently. Before the EU can start talking about helping “political and economic unity” in its neighborhood, it should first take a look inside its own borders. Only with consistency and the ability to stay true to one’s own missions come respect from the international community.