If there was anybody who wasn’t the obvious choice for the job of the EU’s first quasi-foreign minister, it probably would have been Baroness Catherine Ashton. She had been Commission for only one year. Barely anybody outside the UK knew her. She had no experience in foreign affairs, she didn’t even speak a foreign language fluently. But she was female, British and a social democrat. According to the rules of logic that the EU uses to assign its high officials, she was considered to be qualified.
Following her presentation in November 2009 as High Representatives of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Politcy, along with Council President Herman van Rompuy, Brussels was immediately declared an anti-charism zone. Commerators called their selection the “least common denominator”. People were disappointed with the EU filling two offices of such importance with two such lackluster politicians. But while one of them found a way to live up to the worst expectations and even surpassed them to some extend, the other one managed to become a major figure in world politics.
Her latest achievement was the atomic deal with the Iran. She played the leading role in mediating between the United States, Russia and Iran, sitting down and negotiating with Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Zavad Zarif and ultimately coming up with a deal everybody could agree with. “The Guardian” declared the result to be her triumph.
Lady Ashton has been the first and sole western politician to visit the ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi in prison. She was among the few to seriously engage in the conflict, meeting leaders from both the military junta and the Muslim Brotherhood and offering herself as mediator.
Her biggest success, however, must have been the normalisation agreement sign by Serbia and the Kosovo in May 2013. It deals with the situation of the Serbs in Northern Kosovo and is considered to be a huge step in the rapprochement of two countries that used to shoot at each other not 15 years ago. Even tough recent local elections in Northern Kosovo failed, the agreement remains of vital signifigance for peace efforts in the Balkan area.
Despite all her efforts and successes, Lady Ashton has hardly got into the spotlight of a general audience. Firstly, because it’s good news and secondly, affairs of such difficulty barely catch the attention of the media.
But diplomatic success isn’t a matter of media selling value. Diplomacy is tedious and complicated. It requires diligence, patience and skill. The charism of its respective agents is, if anything, secondary. Prima donnas, looking for attention through diplomacy, are out of place.
That seems to be a perfect working enviroment for Lady Ashton. Her qualifications, widely denied four years ago, are beyond doubt today. And her lackluster appearance did not turn out to be disadantageous simply because it is not required for the task. Much to the contrary of Mr. Van Rompuy whose representative office could use some colour.
With Lady Ashton’s departure from office next year, the EU would be well advised in adopting her approach towards diplomacy. As long as member states like Germany, France and the UK prefer to strike out on their own, the Union itself will remain on the back seat of international politics. Yet as representative of half a billion people, the EU will still sit on the big tables. It should make a virtue of necessity and use its allegedly weak position to maintain the mediating role and try to bring disputing parties to the table.
Lady Ashton showed the way along of which the EU could render world politics a great service in the solution of conflicts and thus prove itself worthy of its Nobel Peace Prize.