The Economist‘s EU columnist argues that three factor will make Catherine Ashton’s job as the EU’s new foreign policy chief “pretty complicated.” Let’s take each of them in turn.

First, most EU countries do not really have foreign policies. They have neighbourhood policies, which may or may not drag them into some nasty spats that make little sense to outsiders. Inasmuch as they have foreign policy machines, they are designed to extract the maximum advantage from relations with a handful of big powers, like America, Russia and China. Some may have former colonies, where they can play at being superpowers (just think of Belgium in the Congo). But ask them to opine about Sudan, Iran, North Korea or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and they have not much to say. In the words of one senior EU official, one of the great skills of Javier Solana, Baroness Ashton’s predecessor, was to craft some line on the Middle East, the Balkans or whatever, and to convince most EU countries that whatever he was proposing had actually been their policy all along.

This is a fascinating point.  While  the lastest Pew poll on the subject shows American isolationist sentiment at its highest level in four decades, the fact remains that Americans really do think globally. The notion that something “bad” going on halfway around the world is none of our business is an almost alien concept.  Not so for the average Swede or Irishman.

Secondly, a handful of EU countries have ambitions to be something like great powers: either globally, like France and Britain, or regionally, like Spain in Latin America. Then there are big countries which feel they have vital foreign policy interests to defend, even if they do not have strategic visions to promote: think of Germany’s ties to Russia. Though Lady Ashton cannot afford to be seen as taking orders from the EU’s big beasts, she must surely know if she forges too autonomous a line, and cuts across London, Paris or Berlin, she risks a sharp tug on the leash.

The fact that there are two EU countries (France and the UK) that still think of themselves as great powers, another (Germany) that is a major economic power  but with an ambivalence toward out-of-area military operations, and twenty-four that think “foreign policy” and “EU policy” are one and the same is a steep challenge, indeed.

Finally, a lot of people are setting considerable store by Lady Ashton bringing one particular big beast—her own country, Britain—to the European security and defence policy (ESDP) table. There are many reasons she ended up being appointed to this rather terrifying job: she was a member of the Party of European Socialists, she was a woman, and her prime minister, Gordon Brown, needed a big job to brandish right away in return for dropping Britain’s support for Tony Blair for the post of President of the European Council. But one of the biggest reasons for her surprise appointment is that there was a strong feeling among many EU governments that it would be a good idea to choose someone British.


But will she have a direct line to Number 10 Downing Street, especially after the expected defeat of Labour, her party, at the British General Election in spring 2010? Will she be able to influence opinion in Parliament, or on the British airwaves? The blunt truth is that Lady Ashton is not a well-known figure in Britain, her native country. Nor does she come from a foreign policy or security background. She was never elected to the House of Commons, and her government experience at home did not include any posts at the Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence. In short, she does not have much of a constituency back in London.

This is perhaps her greatest challenge.  While the ridiculing of Ashton and Herman Van Rompuy selections is unfair, it’s nonetheless the case that they were compromise candidates reflecting a lack of consensus as to how powerful these new jobs should be, much less what they should do with that power. And the UK is easily the biggest player with strong reservations about the European project.

 James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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