Ignoring the outside world

Does it really matter whether Catherine Ashton's travel plans include Haiti, Gaza or an erupting Icelandic volcano? There must be more insightful analysis, and less idle gossip, in press coverage of EU attempts to forge a common foreign policy

Senior Policy Fellow

On Sunday March 21, an ancient Icelandic volcano erupted, blasting a
huge fissure in an ice-field and spreading thick clouds of ash over a
large area. My first thought was: “Cool!”

My second was: “When is Catherine Ashton flying to Reykjavik to show the EU cares?”

OK,
that is untrue. But I bet the question crossed the minds of a few
members of the Brussels press corps. Ever since she was appointed the
EU’s foreign policy chief last November, many EU journalists have
seemed unable to cover a crisis without asking: “Is Ashton there yet?”

The
media’s fixation with her travels says more about the media than it
does about Ashton – it is hard not to conclude that some pundits have
little grasp of foreign affairs.

It started with Haiti. The
media and some MEPs criticised Ashton for not heading to Port-au-Prince
straight after January’s earthquake, supposedly making the EU look bad.

She was right not to get in the way of aid workers. Yet for some
in Brussels, her absence was the story. Which is, if you pause to think
about it for a second, morally vacuous.

Yet when Ashton has got
on a plane, she has been criticised too. When she went to Ukraine in
February for the inauguration of President Yanukovych, she was attacked
for missing a meeting of European defence ministers in Majorca that
fell on the same date.

It is a weird world when a politician gets
told off for spending a late winter day in Kiev (average February
weather: minus 5 degrees centigrade, with a 60 percent chance of
precipitation) rather than enjoying the Mediterranean spring with
fellow Euro big-wigs.

But maybe the EU’s high representative for
foreign affairs and security policy had fallen into the trap of
imagining that her job meant doing a little bit of foreign policy work.
She would have an easier time if she prioritised press conferences in
sunny places.

Last week she did visit a sunny place: Gaza. While
she was there, radicals fired a rocket into Israel, killing a Thai
labourer. There were duly headlines about how Ashton’s trip had been
“overshadowed” and “marred” by the killing. A Hamas spokesman assured
the press that there was no linkage to her visit – not, perhaps, the PR
help she really wanted.

Still, her trips to date have been
measured and sensible. She has gone to places where the EU either has
influence but needs focus (the Balkans) or has deep humanitarian
concerns (Gaza). She has not pulled off spectacular deals, but no such
deals were on offer.

The foreign policy chief, admittedly new to
this sort of work, is probing the EU’s extremely complex security
environment. If someone wanted to write a really serious story about
her travels, it would not focus on her as a person (or her relations
with other EU players) but on just how horrible the EU’s strategic
situation looks when seen up close.

The real stories are Russia’s
resurgence, Israel’s recalcitrance, the renewed chauvinism of the
Bosnian Serbs, endemic corruption in Kosovo, al Qaeda’s increasing
presence in North Africa – the list goes on at length. But it is easier
for the press to personalise matters and concentrate on Ashton. And
maybe that is what the Brussels market desires.

This is not
particularly shocking. There has been a lot of negative briefing
against Ashton, and there is nothing like a dose of negative briefing
to make journalists feel important.

It has all happened before.
Her predecessor, Javier Solana, often got a rough ride from the press.
In 2000, when Middle East peace talks driven by the outgoing Clinton
administration failed, a Guardian editorial attacked “the sad
tsar of European foreign policy” for not standing up to the Americans
more. This will most likely happen again.

There are very good
foreign policy commentators in Brussels and around Europe who write
insightful things about Europe’s strategic outlook. Nonetheless, much
coverage of Ashton’s first months in office has seemed wilfully,
depressingly introverted at times.

Pundits tend to open
articles with phrases like “the EU must adapt to a world defined by a
shift in the balance of power from the West to new powers like China
and India” before salivating for 800 words over whether France, Britain
or Germany has more influence over planning for the External Action
Service. Nobody seems to spot the contradiction.

In a recent blog-post,
the Economist’s David Rennie suggested that all Brussels correspondents
should be required to leave the city every five years to refresh their
understanding of the outside world. I would propose a more immediate
solution: everyone who has filed a piece retelling stale gossip about
Catherine Ashton should be forced to write an investigative piece
probing a poorly understood strategic challenge to the EU.

And
none of those are allowed to refer to Iceland’s volcanoes, even if it
is tempting to try out a headline about “Volcanic Ash-ton”.

(This article appears in E!Sharp)

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow