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EU foreign policy chief calls for European unity to halt decline

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Catherine Ashton, who has taken widespread criticism since entering office 100 days ago, said in Strasbourg on Wednesday that EU nations must pull together – to achieve unity at home and gain influence abroad.

Speaking in front of the European Parliament in a debate on foreign policy on Wednesday, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said Europe must do more to defend its interests and values on the global stage.

“Europe’s wider international credibility depends on getting our neighborhood right,” Ashton told parliamentarians in Strasbourg, adding “if we pull together we can safeguard our interests. If not, others will make decisions for us.”

Ashton was referring to emerging global economic powers like China and India, which she said would lead to a decline in Europe’s influence abroad if it continued on its current course.

Since the end of the Second World War, Europe’s global economic output has dropped from 28 percent to 21 percent, leaving it lagging behind booming Asian powers. In the last century, Europe’s share of the world population has fallen from around a quarter to less than seven percent.

“The economies of China, India, and others are racing ahead at 10 percent a year. Economic weight is translating into political clout and self-confidence,” Ashton said.

End to ‘infighting’

In her address, Ashton was adamant that the EU take concrete steps to reestablish Europe’s global influence.

A major initiative is to be the creation of an EU diplomatic corps, or the External Action Service (EAS), which Ashton said would see as many as 3,000 diplomats organizing the bloc’s foreign, development, and trade policies.

However, announcement of the structure of the EAS – which was scheduled to be ready by the end of next month – will most likely be delayed. Ashton blamed bureaucratic infighting for the probable postponement.

“Europe is going through a phase of building something new, which many across Europe have long wanted. However, any time you create something new, there will be resistance. It has been messy and complicated,” she said.

Ashton has been handicapped in her new position by turf wars between the European Commission – the EU’s executive arm – and the individual member states, as both are jockeying for position in the newly reformed European Union. Given that part of her position is to represent both the Commission and the member states, Ashton finds herself caught in the middle of the struggle.

‘100 days of solitude’

The Wednesday address came exactly 100 days after Ashton took office as the first EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

Her term thus far has been marked by widespread criticism, with opponents calling into question whether the former trade commissioner – who has never been elected into office – is qualified for the position.

Her selection – together with that of the likewise relatively unknown European Council President, Herman van Rompuy – came as a surprise to both Europe and the international community, who were expecting a major political figure to be named to the new top foreign affairs position.

After taking office, Ashton faced international criticism for not responding to the crisis in Haiti quickly enough, after an earthquake devastated the country on January 12.

In response to allegations that she lacks experience for her role as foreign affairs high representative, Ashton publicly called on those who judged her to concentrate on her performance in the new position – and not on who she was before being assigned to the task.

Editor: Rob Turner