As the European Parliament 'confirmation' hearings for incoming EU Commissioners rumble on in the background, we thought we might take a look at Cathy Ashton's hearing yesterday.
It received a fair amount of press coverage (see here, here, here and here).
You can watch the hearing here but unless you have trouble sleeping tonight, you might want to give it a miss. These Parliament hearings were never going to set Europe alight with inspiration, and were always going to be filled with that old favourite - the "non-answer" answer - or the "answer-so-bland-and-long-winded-that-you-have-lost-the-will-to-live-by-the-end" answer.
Example: Cathy Ashton - we have a "once in a lifetime opportunity to create the External Action Service"..."we need to be results orientated".
She identified "Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East, Somalia, and Yemen" as "clearly among some of the top priorities" for foreign policy, and adding that she intends to travel to Washington soon to discuss how to co-ordinate strategies on such global issues. But apart from name-dropping some obvious countries, there wasn't a trace of substance in her answers.
One MEP was moved to ask Baroness Ashton what the next step in her vision for Afghanistan was - and reiterate that a specific answer was wanted.
While the EU Foreign Minister blazing a trail ahead of individual member state governments' foreign policy is clearly not a desirable scenario, does Baroness Ashton have an opinion beyond what is she is being briefed on by the Commission advisors she has surrounded herself with?
Back in December, Cathy Ashton was told by a German MEP that she would need more specific policies at this hearing, and she assured them that she would have "more considered policies".But that didn't seem to be the case. German MEP Elmar Brok reportedly said after the hearing, "She clearly still has a lot of learning to do; there are many gaping holes that will have to be filled very quickly."
While Baroness Ashton is new to her job (and new to most things in high international politics it seems), this does highlight some of those niggly points we raised back then - that this new sui generis role blurs the line between transnational and supranational, and as yet it is unclear how it will operate in the 'eurospace' between the Commission and the Council - and above all that the Foreign Minister job is a blank cheque and it is still unclear how EU policy will be formed in concrete terms.
One rather telling question from an MEP asked Baroness Ashton where her loyalty will lie in a disagreement between the Council and Commission on a given issue, e.g. Iraq.
Baroness Ashton's response: "The issue for me is not to be in that position - the issue for me is to bring the Council and Commission together, in order to develop strategic and common policy in the right way."
NB: there is a rather hilarious anecdote on the Economist's Charlemagne blog, relating to MEPs' concerns that overseas EU delegations employ the appropriate protocol staff to ensure that MEPs are met at airports with official cars when they go on foreign jollies.