It was a week in which she was finally hoping to do everything right, for a change. She met with the new president of Ukraine on Monday and flew to Haiti the next day to visit earthquake victims. She had hardly recovered from jetlag after returning from the Caribbean before jetting to the Spanish city of Cordoba for a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
And what did Catherine Ashton, 53, the EU's chief diplomat, come home to at the end of this busy week? More grumbling.
She was criticized for arriving in Haiti too late -- more than six weeks after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has since been to Chile to survey the damage from a subsequent earthquake that struck there; for being tardy in Cordoba, after having missed a meeting with the EU defense ministers and the NATO secretary general on Mallorca a week earlier; and because, in the view of some of the attendees, she came to Cordoba equipped with shoddy material on the development of the European diplomatic service.
Her predecessor Javier Solana, known for his busy schedule, flew an average of about 6,000 kilometers (3,750 miles) a week. Ashton has recently been traveling three times as much, and yet, according to the BBC, the flying EU ambassador's reward for her efforts has been nothing but "flak" from the member states. As one top European diplomat said, a battle is underway "between political pygmies," one that is symptomatic of the EU's loss of significance on the global stage.
For the last 100 days, Catherine Ashton, also known as Baroness Ashton of Upholland, has been the most powerful woman on the continent -- on paper, at least. As the "high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy," the British politician represents half a billion people living in the 27 members of the European Union. Almost 7,000 bureaucrats are expected to report to her at the new European foreign service, the European External Action Service (EEAS), which will have an annual budget of several billion euros.
As recently as 2001, Ashton was the chair of the health authority in the British county of Hertfordshire. What happened after that has the dimensions of a fairytale. It sometimes seems as if Ashton feels the same way, particularly when she is standing there, smiling awkwardly and dressed in her all-purpose outfit with a colorful scarf, next to Hillary Clinton in Washington, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York or Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow. At moments like these, Ashton looks a little like Cinderella arriving at the royal palace.
The explanation for how a Labour politician whose most distinctive traits are -- in the words of former BBC editor Rod Liddle -- "Stalinist political correctness" and the "charisma of a caravan site on the Isle of Sheppey" captured the top spot in EU diplomacy is as simple as it is grotesque. The appointment of the inexperienced Briton seemed to guarantee that no one would interfere with the national foreign policies of individual EU member states, particularly the powerful nations of France, Germany and Great Britain.
But now there are growing fears, even in Paris and Berlin, that Europe may have missed an historic opportunity by choosing Ashton.
A Face for Europe
Of course, the bar was high. Together with the first permanent president of the European Council, the new position of high representative was intended to finally give the EU "a face and a voice." Both figures were to provide Europe with new foreign policy stature, placing it on the same level as major global powers, and making it constantly reachable and both capable and willing to make decisions.
But now this dream is crumbling, just 100 days since Ashton and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy took office. And Lady Ashton is doing her part to further its demise.
The grumbling was understated at first. For instance, an internal memo from the German Foreign Ministry quoted in the Guardian warned that under Ashton's leadership, Great Britain could acquire a "disproportionate" amount of influence on the diplomatic service.
Was the leaked memo meant as a deliberate warning shot from the Germans and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, delivered before the new, lucrative positions were assigned in Brussels? Werner Hoyer, a senior official at the Foreign Ministry, sought to downplay the issue by saying that, despite all the skepticism, "our position is clear: We are trying to support the woman."
The German diplomats had changed their tune by last Friday's meeting of EU foreign ministers, however. Westerwelle told reporters that the European foreign service should not be "spoon-fed by other European institutions," and that it must be "completely independent." His French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, agreed, saying: "There is still a lot of work to be done." Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger commented: "There is huge frustration among the member states that the whole issue would be steered by the Commission."
Poor Understanding of Foreign Policy
Spindelegger and his fellow diplomats were expressing their discontent over Ashton's latest proposal concerning the way that posts and responsibilities should be assigned within the new EEAS. Her plan, which is supposed to be implemented by the end of March, contained a number of absurdities and plenty of fuel for controversy.
Under Ashton's plan, development policy, defined as an "integral component of the toolbox" of the Union, could be split, with responsibility for Africa going to the Commission and the new EEAS taking on Asia and Latin America. The new EU ambassadors to other countries would report to the high representative, which makes perfectly good sense. But they would also report to the new Council president and the European Commission, which could also be "completely involved" in their appointment. Three people in charge and several voices, instead of one face and one voice? "It won't work," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.
The sharpest and most personal attacks against Ashton are coming from the French. In addition to criticizing her for doing the Commission's bidding, they claim to have exposed some of her supposed weaknesses: unreachable after eight in the evening, too many weekends at home across the Channel with her husband and children, and a poor understanding of foreign policy combined with a lack of good instincts.
Lowest Common Denominator
But in setting their sights on Ashton, her critics forget that she was the lowest common denominator in an equation that threatened not to work out. Europe's forward thinkers once called for an "EU foreign policy free of institutional infighting." But the Treaty of Lisbon, in effect since Dec. 1, 2009 and the product of years of bargaining, places virtually impossible demands on the top diplomat.
As high representative for foreign affairs, she is expected to shape policy independently of the powerful European Commission, and yet she is also the vice-president of that body. She is expected to satisfy the remaining 27 member states, as well as the body that represents them, the European Council. Moreover, on a number of issues she even has to answer to the 736 members of the European Parliament.
Would a career diplomat have been less of a target of derision? Someone who, unlike Ashton, already knew what the future Transatlantic Market is, where the city of Kunduz is located and why it isn't sufficient to limit her criticism of Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi's declaration of jihad against Switzerland to the fact that it came "at an unfortunate moment?"
David Miliband, Britain's foreign minister and the darling of the European left, turned down the top EU post. Former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was sacrificed to Chancellor Angela Merkel's plans to ship the Christian Democrat governor of Baden-Württemberg Günther Oettinger off to Brussels as the new German commissioner. And the candidacy of Massimo D'Alema, an experienced Italian politician, was apparently blocked by protests from Israel and Jewish communities, because of his supposed pro-Palestinian sentiments.
The remaining candidates were assessed according to typical EU criteria such as the candidate's gender and political orientation, as well as the size and relative importance of his or her native country. And because a male conservative, Belgian politician Herman Van Rompuy, was to become the new Council president, the target profile for the job of top diplomat was female and left-leaning.
Former Irish President Mary Robinson was seen as a possible candidate, but she took herself out of the running. Ashton, on the other hand, who had already been EU trade commissioner for a year, was interested. On Nov. 19, Ashton was presented to an astonished public as the EU's new miracle weapon.
Even at home in England, with its traditionally skeptical stance toward Europe, "Baroness Wossername" was more likely to trigger amusement than enthusiasm. Upon her appointment, the British people "weren't exactly dancing in the streets," says Peter Kellner, president of the YouGov opinion polling group, speaking in his glass-enclosed London office. In addition to being one of the country's top pollsters, Kellner is also "Cathy" Ashton's husband. Although he doesn't say it, without him she would not be what she is today.
'A Complete Apparatchnik'
When Ashton and Kellner met, she was 31. After growing up in the heart of the northern English industrial region, she earned a degree in sociology and worked in various positions for non-profit organizations. Through Kellner she met rising star Tony Blair. The two couples debated New Labour, Tony and Cherie spent weekends at the Kellners' house in Cambridgeshire, and a friendship developed. Two years after Blair became prime minister, Ashton was made a life peer and member of the House of Lords.
In 2007, as leader of the House of Lords, she was responsible for securing a majority for the Lisbon Treaty, an act that still prompts leading eurosceptic Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a large landowner in the Scottish Highlands, to speak of her with a mixture of respect and bitter derision today. "She is very charming and, at the same time, a complete apparatchik," he says gruffly in the House of Lords bar. "In other words, she'll go a long way in Brussels."
From Elaine Ashcroft, a classmate from Ashton's grammar school days, to top EU officials in Brussels, everyone agrees that Ashton is highly intelligent, exceptionally tough and a master negotiator. These assets will be in demand in the coming weeks, as she and her staff face the task of welding together the organization that will represent the EU worldwide in the future. More than 130 diplomatic missions will have to be filled, and not just in the Fiji Islands or the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, where a staff of up to 50 people already represent Europe today.
Senior positions at EU headquarters are also vacant. One long-time Brussels observer, describing the usual jockeying for EU positions, talks of "the chutzpah with which the British and the French are pushing every ash bin painted in their national colors into the EU display window." That chutzpah is also prompting covetous feelings among the remaining 25 EU member states. On Friday, the foreign ministers of Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Cyprus warned that the smaller EU countries should not be overlooked while handing out jobs.
Losing Sight of the Big Picture
Helga Schmid, the office manager of former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and later director of Javier Solana's political staff, is in the running for the post of political director. The British would like to see former Blair adviser Robert Cooper as future secretary general. On the other hand, critics are not sure if they want yet another Briton in a top job.
Brussels is abuzz these days, amid all the jockeying and wheeling and dealing for key positions in the glass towers along Rue de la Loi. Here, where daily life in Europe is regulated by the more than 150,000 pages of the Community law, where each official is a minor potentate in his own realm, and where shared progress is measured in millimeters, it is easy to lose sight of the main question: Which goals, other than the copious and costly evocation of peace and human rights, should Europe's future diplomacy actually serve?
During his first visits to Europe, US President Barack Obama recognized, more quickly than anyone else, that there are almost as many answers to this question as there are EU member states. Obama's decision not to attend the planned summit between the EU and the United States in May has spared the Brussels officials in charge of protocol the task of deciding which top official to seat the closest to Obama: Commission President Barroso, Council President Van Rompuy, rotating Council President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero or Ashton. In the EU cosmos, they are still arguing over whether Obama actually "cancelled" or, even more embarrassingly, wasn't invited in time.