SPIEGEL: Is the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak good news for the European Union?
Ashton: I am happy for the people of Egypt. They have forced Mubarak to resign with their perseverance and non-violence. Anyone who heard the cheers on Tahrir Square understands how much they have yearned for this moment.
SPIEGEL: Are we witnessing a democratic revolution, or have military leaders assumed power?
Ashton: So far the demonstrator's demands for real democracy have not been met. The people want to determine their own future. The generals who are now at the helm must meet these demands.
SPIEGEL: How soon should elections be held?
Ashton: The people of Egypt have said clearly that they want free elections as soon as possible. I expect those currently in power to present a plan on how they intend to prepare for this. The transitional phase should not last longer than a few weeks, and certainly no more than a few months. Europe can support this process. We have had a lot of experience with peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe.
SPIEGEL: For two weeks, Europe watched the events unfold in Egypt without doing anything. Why didn't you become involved?
Ashton: You mustn't expect any dramatic performances from me. We shouldn't try to rush ahead of the events. We have to address them as soon as they become reality. Europe isn't as fast and flexible as you would like it to be. Before I speak on behalf of the Union, I have to consult with all 27 member states. That's why we will never be the first to promote a policy. Europe will not always be the first to react, but it is better to take your time and be right than first and wrong.
SPIEGEL: But the truth is that Europe placed too much emphasis on stability and too little on democracy in the past. Mubarak was the West's ally.
Ashton: That's a typical journalist's statement. Hindsight is always the perfect vision. Of course stability was important to us. Egypt played a key role in the fight against Islamist terror and for the security of the State of Israel. But we also tried to export our European values to these countries. Of course, not everything one would like to see happen is achievable. Anyone who takes foreign policy seriously will always have to make compromises.
SPIEGEL: Your countryman, Prime Minister David Cameron, says that the EU paid hundreds of millions of euros to Egypt in the past "without getting anything in return."
Ashton: If he had given it some more thought he probably wouldn't have put it that way. Our programs absolutely strengthened the Tunisian and Egyptian middle class, which have now protested in the streets. I do admit, however, that we need to look more carefully at whom we support and what we expect in return. We have to draw conclusions earlier when aid recipients do not fulfill their commitments.
SPIEGEL: When will you travel to Egypt?
Ashton: As soon as possible. The Egyptian government has asked that no foreign politicians visit the country at this time. I don't want to interfere in Egypt's internal affairs, but I do want to offer assistance.
SPIEGEL: Will you also help representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Ashton: I will speak with all representatives of the opposition. The success of the elections depends on their being supported by the entire society. Everyone, including the Muslim Brothers, must be involved in this process, whether or not we agree with them.
SPIEGEL: It isn't the first time you have stayed away from crisis regions. You're already derided in the European Parliament as "Lady Absent."
Ashton: I can't be everywhere. I have a job that three different people did in the past. I inherited 500 meetings a year from my predecessors. I chair the meetings of the EU's foreign, defense and development ministers. And I am in the process of building the Union's diplomatic corps.
SPIEGEL: It sounds like a "Mission Impossible."
Ashton: I could hum the title melody of the film for you.
SPIEGEL: Your words don't make it sound as if you are sitting next to the telephone whose number former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once missed when he wanted to talk "with Europe."
Ashton: The Americans understand that we Europeans have caught up. We talk to them every hour, sometimes even more frequently. The amount of communication between the State Department and my office is enormous. When it comes to protocol, we are their first contact. In that regard, I do have the number Kissinger was looking for.