Baroness Catherine Ashton, the foreign minister of the European Union, spelled out the activities and challenges facing the EU’s fledgling foreign policy in an appearance at The Chicago Council Wednesday evening.
These challenges range from Ukraine to Iran to Syria to the Middle East and beyond. If she had few answers to these crises, Ashton told how the 28-member EU has become involved in the wider world since it established its common foreign and defense policy five years ago.
Ashton spoke in conversation with Louis B. Susman, the Council board member and former US ambassador to Britain, in the second annual Louis B. Susman Distinguished Lecture on Transatlantic Relations. Her official title is High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, but this means she is the EU’s foreign minister and the bloc’s representative in areas where it agrees to speak with one voice.
As the EU’s leading diplomat, Ashton spoke diplomatically, making it clear she could not be candid about delicate areas under negotiation. But in response to Susman’s questions, she described the EU’s stance toward several major issues:
- In the Ukrainian crisis, “we must be ready to put on the pressure, so Russia knows the price that is to be paid.” At the same time, the EU wants to “use every diplomatic channel to deescalate the situation” and enable the presidential election to be held May 25, as scheduled.
- The EU is involved in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Ashton noted that Iran is abiding by the earlier interim agreement. Any comprehensive agreement, she said, must enable “the international community to have confidence in the peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear program.
- Asked about the refugee crisis created by the civil war in Syria, Ashton called it “a terrible, terrible tragedy…almost unbearable.” The most important job, she said, is to end the violence and to get Syrian President Bashar Assad “to really look at what’s happened to his country and to draw the obvious conclusions.”
Ashton said that Assad’s plans to hold new presidential elections next month, in the midst of the fighting, are “absolutely ridiculous.”
- Ashton praised the “absolutely incredible” efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to reach an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. “What energy that man has!” she said.
Ashton alluded to the difficulties of getting the 28 EU member nations to agree on foreign policy–an area that sovereign governments traditionally guard for themselves. This, she said, is particularly true in deciding whether to commit troops–the ultimate foreign policy weapon.
Through its 60-year history, the EU has focused on economic unity, culminating in the single currency. Having a unified foreign and security policy always was a goal and was enshrined in the 1993 Maastricht Agreement, but getting member nations to cede these powers has been difficult.
Before taking on this chore, Ashton was the EU trade commissioner–the one foreign policy area where the EU, as an organization, has real clout. The member nations agreed early on to give the EU authority to negotiate for them in global trade talks.
Asked about the current Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks between the EU and the US, Ashton seemed to agree that they wouldn’t meet their end-of-year deadline, as hoped.
But she talked about the enormous benefits to each side of success–a $90 billion boost to the US economy, creating 750,000 jobs. While setting no deadline, she said that “I hope it will be done.”
The EU has no official position on the September referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, but Ashton, speaking as a British citizen, said firmly that “I believe the people in Scotland will vote to remain part of the UK. Full stop.”
Susman agreed that Scottish independence “would be a tragic mistake,” but predicted that the vote “will be close.”
Richard C. Longworth is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Read more of his program summaries and recent publications or follow his blog.