Baroness Ashton: 'The UK needs to talk about Europe'
But the EU foreign chief is focused on Syria, not a British debate, she tells Andy McSmith
With a backbench rebellion by the anti-EU brigade looming tonight, David Cameron and William Hague may feel that today is not the day to receive a plaudit from a senior Brussels official. It is likely to stoke up suspicion in the Conservative backwoods that their leaders have sold out on Europe.
Be that as it may, Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has nothing but praise for the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary – despite their being from the Eurosceptic side of the Tory party and she from Labour's Euro-enthusiast wing.
When the Conservatives returned to government last year, there was some nervousness in Brussels, where they did not know whether to expect a repeat of the sort of handbag-waving for which Margaret Thatcher is remembered – but it was tempered with relief that this was a coalition government in which the Euro-friendly Nick Clegg featured so prominently.
Giving an extremely rare press interview in her modern HQ within the Berlaymont building in the heart of Brussels, Baroness Ashton revealed that relations with London have been very much better than people hoped. From a distant vantage point in China, where she is on a diplomatic mission today, she will be quietly wishing Mr Cameron a convincing victory in tonight's Commons vote.
"When the Coalition came in, it's worth remembering that people saw not just the Conservative government, but also the Liberal Democrat government, if you like," she said. "We saw the mixture. Nick is very well known in Brussels. The anticipation was that you would have a rich mixture of views coming together.
"From my perspective as a British commissioner, the Government have been clear about what they want, and not just on foreign policy, and extremely supportive of me personally. The Foreign Secretary works extremely well as part of the Foreign Affairs Council. He's very clear about British interests, but on the big issues they have been very helpful and very supportive, because they see the value of being able to speak together, particularly on something as complicated as the Middle East peace process or as important as getting strong sanctions against Iran or Syria."
The vote on whether to have an EU referendum, she implies, is a sideshow compared to the more immediate question of the Greek bailout, the subject of the ongoing European summit.
"I've been reading what the Prime Minister has said, and he seems to be clear that he doesn't think it's appropriate to hold a referendum," she added. "What he said very clearly to the government benches is 'This is not the time.' I think Monday afternoon in the Commons will be much more about what happens in the European Council and the eurozone meeting."
When asked whether she was confident that Greece can remain in the euro, she would only say: "There are people across the Commission and across the member states who are absolutely engaged with this and are working through what needs to happen next."
Baroness Ashton's job was created under the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which Gordon Brown signed with visible bad grace, and which Mr Cameron said should be put to a referendum before the UK acceded to it. Afterwards, all the British press speculation was about whether Tony Blair might be the first holder of the newly created post of EU President, but in the complex 27-nation negotiations that followed, that job went to the Belgian Prime Minister, Herman van Rompuy, and Baroness Ashton emerged in the other new job of EU Foreign Minister. It was an outcome that probably surprised her as much as it surprised everyone else.
The reaction in the UK was almost entirely negative, partly because she was not well known and was not thought to be sufficiently qualified, partly because of the involvement of Mr Brown, who was in that period when he could do nothing right, and more generally because of the indifference in the UK to anyone and anything associated with the European Union.
She is now in the curious position where she can walk through London's streets unrecognised, but stands out in other parts of the world, not least in Gaza. On the wall of her office there is a red and yellow papier-mâché kite inscribed with her name, made by eight-year-old children at a Gaza summer camp. Though the EU does not recognise or deal with the Hamas administration, she is involved through the UN in funding educational projects in the strip, which she has visited several times.
"Before I got there, they flew that kite in the kite competition. They said it won, but I don't know if that's true. Afterwards they gave it me. I managed to get it all the way home, through Gaza, through Israel, on a plane, and back. So it's my kite," she said.
She now spends a great deal of time on the Middle East and North Africa. Having met what were then Libya's opposition leaders at the start of the Nato intervention, she is optimistic about their commitment to create what she calls "deep democracy", meaning an independent judiciary and civil service, respect for human rights, and the right of the people to vote the government out of office.
She met Syria's President Assad a year ago, thinking then that he might be a moderniser who would see the benefits of political and economic reform that would induce the country's highly educated diaspora to return. But that was then. Now she is carrying out a policy of constantly ratcheting up EU sanctions with the conscious intention of forcing Mr Assad out of office.
"We want change without chaos," she said. "Across the region you can see countries trying to grapple with demands for change without it leading to chaos, because when you have chaos, people end up dead. But those who turn on their people, in the way that Assad has done, have to recognise that their need to stand aside becomes unanswerable.
"Over the months we have tried to build up our sanctions, very deliberately, because you build and you build, which means the regime doesn't just adjust in one go to what you have done. We will carry on ratcheting up as a way of displaying our concern for the people."
Her low profile in the British press is partly self-inflicted, because she distrusts the media almost totally. Outside her office was a Brussels-based journalist who was amazed that the door of the EU High Commissioner's office was on this rare occasion being opened to any journalist, let alone a British one. But her suspicion stems from the British attitude to the EU.
"It reflects how what happens in Brussels is covered," she said. "In some parts of the EU, and indeed in some parts of the rest of the world, what happens in Brussels just gets different coverage – but the British press is the British press.
"I'm really proud that a Brit has this job, and it's no accident that it's a Brit because a decision was made that Britain should play a big role. I was well known in Brussels because I had been trade commissioner, because I had negotiated and signed the biggest trade deal we had ever done.
"I look for the consensus because the consensus drives the policy into new places. I am also building an organisation from the beginning; I have a lot of knowledge about building organisations. Maybe it's not traditional diplomacy, but negotiation and building consensus are things I have done a lot of.
"I wish in Britain we had the opportunity to debate more about what Europe can offer. In the EU you have half a billion people who share a common belief in democracy, in rights, in the kind of economic life we want. Foreign policy is about trying to deliver for them the best possible economic benefits, the chance to travel, to study, to work, the opportunity through trade to be able to sell their goods and services and as much peace and security so they can live and bring their kids up so they don't have to fear war. That's what we're trying to do. That's what I do."
A Life in Brief
Born Catherine Ashton in Lancashire on 20 March 1956
Education Graduated from London University with a degree in economics.
Career Joined the paid staff of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament out of university, later becoming a management consultant, freelance policy adviser and director of Business in the Community, one of the Prince of Wales's pet charities. Tony Blair made her a Labour peer in 2002, and she was promoted to the Cabinet as Leader of the House of Lords by Gordon Brown in 2007. Mr Brown sent her to Brussels as EU trade commissioner in 2008. As Leader of the House, she was responsible for steering the Lisbon Treaty through the House of Lords.
Family She is married to Peter Kellner, the president of the polling company YouGov. She has two children and three stepchildren.
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