Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, spoke about EU foreign policy at the UCLA Faculty Center on May 6. The meeting was organized by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies and moderated by Terry McCarthy, president and CEO of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.
Posing a series of open questions, moderator Terry McCarthy led HR Catherine Ashton in a survey of major foreign policy issues, starting with how the EU — with 27 countries — could have a common foreign policy. Ashton responded by saying that she is asked the same question in Europe!
The benefits of strong economic policies for the growing number of European Union inhabitants led member states to realize that they could use their influence to make their voice heard on common foreign policy positions, she said. “It’s what I call the highest common factor, not the lowest common denominator,” remarked Ashton.
The EU is now trying to embed firmly in European policy thinking that its member states can develop a strong common foreign policy, she said, noting that the 27 foreign ministers meet every month under her chairmanship. In these discussions, she clarified later, it is not so much the economic power of a member state that counts, as its expertise on a particular issue or region, because all members have a vote and can thus block a given policy.
Ashton differentiated between dealing with an acute situation and the ability of a common policy to tackle such a situation. “We saw [this] in Libya and we see it in Syria,” she remarked. “The challenge sometimes leads us away from foreign policy and diplomacy into having to think about military action, as we saw in Libya. And we will continue to worry about the contexts for [such action].”
“The value of Europe,” commented Ashton, “is that we don’t have an army. We are a strong economic block — a soft power — [and we] can leverage that power to try and deal with issues, especially in our neighborhood.”
Ashton was confident of the future of both the euro and the EU itself, as well as the continued membership of the United Kingdom in the body. Noting that the EU worked closely with a number of non-member states, she said that she spoke more often with Turkey than any other such state. Personally, she said, she would like to see Turkey become an EU member.
Reflecting on the economic recession, she related, “I think one of the most extraordinary things has been that, despite the real economic challenges, the European Union has stuck together. The 27 heads of state have met regularly to deal with this [economic crisis] and have done so effectively.”
In her view, the EU’s work in addressing these problems has become a model for other countries seeking to work together to bring stronger economic cohesion to areas of the world, such as creating a single market.
Ashton noted that the idea of an EU-U.S. trade agreement had been “bubbling” on both sides of the Atlantic for some time. Despite massive existing trade and investment, she said the two sides could do a great deal more on tariffs and non-tariff barriers, such as rules that prevent the two sides from recognizing one another’s standards.
She identified the scoping exercise conducted by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht (through the High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth) as a key step towards negotiations. She said the exercise had proven the potential impact of an agreement on investments, services and straightforward trade to leaders in the White House and Brussels. The two sides are now hoping to conclude an agreement in the next 18 months.
Asked about Syria, Ashton pointed out that the EU was the biggest donor of aid to humanitarian efforts related to the civil war, with roughly half a billion euros going to support Syrians still in Syria and refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton with UCLA students. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)
The EU, she added, continues to work very hard at finding the elusive political situation that will ultimately be needed. Beyond the traumatization of the populace, she noted that rebuilding the country will alone be a massive task.
Ashton argued that Russia had a crucial role to play in resolving the Syrian crisis and urged it to use its influence to good effect, holding out hope that another U.N.-led effort to craft some kind of political consensus among the international community might be fruitful.
With respect to Iran, the responsibilities of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy include leading negotiations on its nuclear program on behalf of the Security Council. In her next meeting with the Iranian side, Ashton is planning a new, two-day agenda that will include plenary sessions and bilateral sessions between the expert teams of the two sides, giving both time to reflect on what is said. Her chief goal in this meeting will be to build confidence on both sides, although she conceded that their respective proposals remained far apart.
With respect to the Far East, Ashton said there was enormous potential for greater European investment in China. Currently, she said, Europe invests more in Switzerland than in China. Politically, Chinese support for EU initiatives, such as those with Iran, is both welcome and a good example of how the international community can work well together, she remarked.
Ashton also pointed out that the EU and China are cooperating militarily on two projects: fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia and working on crisis management of potential natural disasters.
There are a number of “big” relationships in the world that the EU needs to nurture for different reasons, said the speaker, with the EU-U.S. relationship the strongest and most consistent among them. Although China has a bit of difficulty with the closeness of this relationship, she argued that there was no need to exploit it in a negative sense.
The EU and the United States have an especially strong relationship due to common values, concluded Ashton, including a respect for freedom, human rights and the rule of law. The EU, she said, “puts these values at the heart of what we do — it’s who we are. I call it the silver thread of EU foreign policy.”
This event was cosponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations, the UCLA International Institute, and the Delegation of the European Union to the United States.
*Ambassador João Vale de Almeida is the Head of Delegation of the European Union to the United States; Ambassador Rudi Veestraeten is Consul General of Belgium in Los Angeles and Representative of the EU in Southern California for 2013; Cindy Fan is Interim Vice Provost for International Studies at UCLA; Daniel Treisman is Professor of Political Science at UCLA.