Baroness Ashton 'has lost control of EU foreign policy'
The Daily Telegraph - 11 January 2010
By Bruno Waterfield in Brussels
During a hearing in the European Parliament on Monday, Lady Ashton faced repeated questions over who was really in charge of Europe's foreign affairs and security policy.
The Labour life peer, who has never held elected public office or a post as a diplomat, has been instructed by national governments to set up a new diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS), to carry out EU foreign policy independently of the commission.
As High Representative, or foreign minister, a post created under the Lisbon Treaty, Lady Ashton, 53, is also supposed to preserve the control of the Council of the EU, representing national governments, over foreign policy while also being a commission vice-president.
But since taking up her post on January 1, she has been criticised for failing to assert her own authority, for basing her office in the Brussels executive's headquarters and for using commission officials as her key advisers.
Geoffrey Van Orden, a Conservative MEP on the parliament's foreign affairs committee, warned the commission was using the Lisbon Treaty and Lady Ashton's dual role as a commissioner and foreign minister to undermine national sovereignty.
"The Eurocrats want to shift foreign policy away from the nation states to the commission. She is the instrument for this," he said.
"Her whole thrust is in the direction of the commission. Her office is in the commission. It is providing the resources. Her power base is there. I would say to national governments – beware your foreign policy is at risk."
Following the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty at the end of last year, a turf war has broken out between commission officials and diplomats over control of the foreign minister and EEAS.
Many larger EU member states, including Britain and Germany, are concerned that José Manuel Barroso, the commission president, is plotting to keep national diplomats out of senior European diplomatic corps jobs.
Mr Barroso's decision, late last year, to remove "neighbourhood" affairs, EU foreign policy for neighbouring countries such as Ukraine and the Balkans, from Lady Ashton's brief as commissioner was widely seen as a power grab.
Diplomats have also noted the growing influence over Lady Ashton of Joao Vale de Almeida, Commission director general for external relations, who was Mr Barroso's closest and most senior adviser until last June.
"Ashton is not a strong figure politically and her weakness is allowing the commission to empire build – which was not the idea behind her post," said one diplomat.
During Monday's confirmation hearing in front of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, Lady Ashton denied that she allowing the commission to take control.
"It is not a land grab. It is collaboration," she said.
MEPs will vote on the new commission, including Lady Ashton on Jan 26. Charles Tannock, a Conservative MEP, said he was "underwhelmed" by her performance. "But I suspect that we will still support her," he added.