It is standard practice to bash Catherine Ashton and how the External Action Service turned out. The story is of an inward looking institution, without having a grand narrative or strategic vision, and little credibility in either EU member states or EU’s external partners. It is hard to argue that EU foreign policy is doing well. But that is first and foremost because of structural factors – the economic crisis that drastically reduces EU’s foreign policy appetite and resources, as well as soft power appeal (see EU Foreign Policy scorecard 2012 for a similar assessment).
It is perhaps time to reconsider at least some of the standard, off the cuff, assessments of the EEAS (and Catherine Ashton). If one looks at some specific foreign policy dossiers, the reality is that of EEAS gradually emerging as a political animal that can show its teeth if and when necessary (were the Soviet Union alive, its propaganda department would have have used the consecrated term of ‘zverinnyi oskal imperializma’ – the evil grin of imperialism), rather than a fat cat throwing money around as its recently dominant image used to be. The last year’s EU approach to Libya, Syria or Belarus have been a partial confirmation. The EU sanctions on Iran are also case in point. Last weekend at talks in Istanbul the squeezed Iranians seemed to be more open to having a conversation, whereas Ashton’s performance in dealing with them has been widely praised.
There is some pretty steely resolve on Eastern European dossiers as well. When Belarus ‘invited’ the Polish and EU ambassadors to leave Minsk, all EU member states states withdrew their ambassadors. Such shows of solidarity have not been too frequent in EU diplomatic history. The EU Ambassador to Ukraine, Jose Manuel Pinto Teixeira, has been a constant source of news and uncomfortable questions for the Ukrainian president Yanukovich. Teixeira routinely raises issues related to increasing corruption, selective application of justice and increasing political centralisation. He recently stated, pretty bluntly, that unfortunately ‘corruption in Ukraine is now significantly worse than during the so-called chaotic period after the Orange Revolution’. This all comes on top of EU’s refusal to sign the Association agreement with Ukraine as long as Timoshenko is in jail. And even the recent partial initialling of the agreement in Brussels is not likely to change that.
Even in better times, or perhaps due to them, EU unity, toughness and blunt speak have not been traits traditionally associated with European diplomacy. Things might be changing now. If before EEAS, EU ambassadors spent most of their time running projects and coordinating technical assistance, now many EU ambassadors find themselves handling with a firm hand and EU backing serious political storms.