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Europe under attack for 'soft' diplomacy

30 January 2011, 12:09 CET

(BRUSSELS) - Europe's foreign ministers consider joint action on global hotspots from Tunisia to Belarus on Monday, as the EU comes under mounting pressure to offer its fledgling diplomatic corps a louder voice on the world stage.

Set up barely a year ago to raise the European Union's international profile, its new diplomatic corps -- the European External Action Service (EEAS) -- is stumbling against criticism over its failure to do just that.

"The EU has been dithering to respond to events in its neighbours" Belarus and Tunisia, said the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think-tank, "despite this being indicated as its priority foreign policy area."

Because of misguided belief that "status quo equals stability", Tunisia's ousted repressive regime was one of the least criticised by the EU, while its model economy set it on a path to win special "status" in its ties with the 27-nation bloc.

And when the Jasmine Revolution ejected dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the EU was caught napping as a US envoy hit the ground running to offer Washington's help in the turbulence, days before Brussels sent in its own man.

On Monday, EU ministers will slap sanctions on Ben Ali and his associates, as well as on Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus leader in office for 16 years who in December threw hundreds of protestors behind bars after disputed polls.

Yet much criticised English baroness Catherine Ashton, who heads the EEAS, was last week singled out by Human Rights Watch for her "obsequious approach" in allowing trade and energy interests to outgun rights concerns.

Her "quiet dialogue and cooperation often look like acquiescence" on rights abuse, the group said in its annual report.

The EU denies diplomatic double-standards and trade-offs in its dealings with the world.

"We're conscious of the need to act on human rights," said a diplomat from one of the big EU member states, who asked not to be identified.

"The meeting is all about rights," he added as ministers prepared to also discuss Ivory Coast, Iran, Lebanon, Sudan and religious intolerance.

But analysts and diplomats alike are pointing the finger at Ashton as author of a softly-softly approach that underplays the potential impact on the globe of the bloc of half-a-billion people.

"Her vision is inferior to the mandate she was given," said an EU diplomat.

As EU foreign policy chief, Ashton's role according to the union's rule-book is to "conduct the Union's common foreign and security policy."

But according to minutes of the service's first policy board meeting some days ago, obtained by AFP, Ashton defined her new diplomatic vision as being "to promote the role of the EU as a soft power in the world."

"The EU cannot and must not necessarily react on political events as quickly as member states," she told her new board of officials.

And outlining her mission before the European Parliament, Ashton described herself as "a facilitator", rather than a doer.

The EEAS likewise has steered clear of defence issues, which are part of the mandate of the 3,700-member corps, including 130 delegations in non-member countries and at international organisations.

Last month, France, Germany and Poland urged Ashton to come up with concrete steps to deepen military cooperation among cash-strapped EU states by end 2011, though Britain for one may be shy of stepping into NATO's domain.

Asked for comment on Ashton's "soft power" approach, diplomats from EU nations said it was difficult for a grouping of 27 countries to respond quickly.

"We'd like to move even faster," said one diplomat. "But in comparison to three years ago we've come some way, we think it's better than it was."

But Greens foreign affairs parliamentarian Franziska Brantner disagreed.

"Mrs Ashton does not have to wait for consensus among the 27," she said. "She could take her own initiatives but she chooses not to."

Foreign Affairs Council

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soft touch

Posted by Steve Austin at 30 January 2011, 13:34 CET
Europe should concentrate on it's own problems and consoladate itself and not get involved in the middle east or Belarus. The straighting out of these countries/places must be undertaken by their own citizenry, they must take ownership and responsibility for their destiny-lest Europe gets involved and be accused of meddeling and furthering the victim mentality that these places use as a excuse for their own incompetence.

soft touch

Posted by Stoyan Antonov at 01 February 2011, 21:27 CET
yours is a very good point- i think EU should find stronger cultural integrity- to help make its people friendlier, more confident. Unfortunately there are strong set-backs- some attempts by interest groups to impose multiculturalism ( which is just first step of globalization of EU); and there are difficult issues like Greek and Irish debts that mount unhappinies and confusion among those that are strongest contributors- what EU is for, they say. And why some should obey fiscal discipline and others not?
I am also against EU becoming "world power" to get involved in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Belarus etc. We should first mind our own problems, and they are worsening. Recent Turkey introduced "visa free travel" to number of Muslim states and now the borders of Greece and Bulgaria are under real attack. Also Turks are threatening to postpone the famest "Nabuko" project with two more years.