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French defence minister takes aim at absent Ashton

25 February 2010, 22:50 CET
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(PALMA DE MAJORCA) - French Defence Minister Herve Morin took aim at EU High Representative Catherine Ashton Thursday for opting out of her first chance to attend a meeting with his 26 EU counterparts.

"Isn't it rich that this morning, to display the ties between NATO and the EU, we have the NATO secretary general (Anders Fogh Rasmussen) here but not the high representative for the first meeting since the Lisbon treaty came into effect," said Morin, referring to the text which created Ashton's post as the EU's foreign affairs and security chief.

The French minister was talking to the press at the meeting site in Palma de Majorca, Spain, where institutional questions thrown up by the treaty are high on the agenda.

It was a sign of growing impatience with the British peer.

On Wednesday Spain's Defence Minister Carme Chacon, hosting the talks, "regretted Ashton's absence" given the "important" subjects that will be discussed at the meeting, a European diplomat said.

Spain, which holds the EU's rotating presidency for the first half of the year, has made the relaunch of a European defence strategy one of the "fundamental" objectives of its six-month tenure.

Their Dutch colleague Jack De Vries, in a Twitter comment, said "Madame Ashton was notable by her absence" adding that predecessor Javier Solana always managed to find space in his diary for the EU defence ministers' talks.

Ashton herself was in Moscow on Wednesday before representing the European Union at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych on Thursday in Kiev.

Participants at the Palma meet had been hoping to hear her state her intentions as the first holder of the beefed-up foreign and defence job.

Several European diplomats in Brussels also expressed their displeasure at her absence from the defence talks.

"Something has changed in the order of priorities," one European diplomatic source said.

Arnaud Danjean, chairman of the EU parliament's security and defence committee, declared himself "very shocked" by Ashton's no-show.

"Unfortunately her absence confirms the little interest Mrs Ashton has for security and defence questions, which make up a integral part of her job," he said, adding that an EU commissioner could have stood in for her in Kiev.

However Daniel Korski, defence analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, was sympathetic to Ashton's plight.

"She has so much on her plate that it is frankly impossible for her to go everywhere and see everyone in the way that Javier Solana did," he told AFP.

"Right now people would probably agree that ensuring the focus on Ukraine's transformation and the inauguration of the new president as well as re-establishing some link with Russia takes a higher priority than progressing the defence agenda."

He admitted that the larger problem was that "she hasn't really shown herself to be particularly interested in the defence portfolio," where her views appear distinctly British and focused on NATO rather than the EU.

"She could be faulted for not instigating a programme of work or indicating that she would like to see a programme of work begin on defence," especially at a time when US Defense Secretary Robert Gates "has been so critical on European defence investments."

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