Thursday, 19 November 2009

The soft power of Cathy Ashton

The soft power of Cathy Ashton

She may have been a surprise candidate and she may be new to the field of foreign policy, but the election of Baroness Catherine Ashton as first EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs is an excellent choice. It is not only a good sign for the EU that one of the two new top jobs went to woman. Cathy, as she prefers to be called, brings along a certain kind of soft power: She is known to be extremely bright and an excellent negotiator and is, as anyone who has ever met her will confirm, utterly charming. These are qualities she will need badly to get the job done.

The continental European in me is obviously disappointed that the top jobs were not given to stronger, more charismatic personalities. But the hay may around the Lisbon Treaty showed that not all 27 member states want a more integrated Europe. These sentiments have to be respected; I believe last nights appointment were made in that spirit.

The post of Foreign High Representative combines several new jobs. Apart from sharing the monthly meeting of the EU Foreign Secretaries and leading 8.000 diplomats of the new European diplomatic service, she will also act as Vice-Chief of the European Commission. She will have to handle big egos and differing agendas. She will have to listen to 27 sometimes conflicting voices and create a consistent one; she will have to represent a European Common Foreign Policy on the international stage which has failed to be united on many occasions in the past.

But Cathy Ashton has proven that she has the talent to bring conflicting parties together and building consens. She was responsible for taking the Lisbon treaty through the House of Lords. She has a strong track record in campaigning for social rights and equality, which gives reason to hope that human rights will continue to play a strong role in Europe's Foreign Policy.

No, she is not as experienced and glamorous as Hillary Clinton, neither does she have the standing of an Angela Merkel. But giving the foreign top job to a British woman with a strong talent for bringing together parties at odds is a clever way of making sure that Britain remains at the heart of Europe without antagonising its European Partners. It is a good result for women, it is a good result for Europe, and it is most certainly a good result for Britain.

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