No cigar: on Kosovo’s new deal, Catherine Ashton and the “single voice”

May 16, 2013


Last month’s deal between Serbia and Kosovo was a three-pointer for Cathy Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief. But she seems unfit to face different challenges


The deal, agreed after 10 rounds of direct talks between the countries’ leaders under the auspices of Catherine Ashton and the European External Action Service, is nothing short of a breakthrough. Though not concluding the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state by Serbia, if smoothly implemented, the agreement will end a deadlock in place since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999 – whereby Kosovo has had little to no control of its northern parts – and establish true integrity in the country. 


Having the two leaders sit at one table is itself an immense achievement. Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s PM, is a former hardliner from Milosevic’s circle that is in great part responsible for the war with all its nasty episodes. Hashim Thaci, his Kosovar counterpart, is a wartime political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which is to be blamed for large-scale ethnic cleansing, particularly after the war. Parts of the talks are reported to have been highly dramatic and they twice appeared to fail completely. On April 2nd, after the eighth round, Mrs Ashton announced that she had given up; and on the night of the 18th, both delegations were on their way home, having reached no agreement, when the Baroness asked them to return. That the next day the deal was initialled praises the High Representative’s perseverance, devotion and skilful consensus-building. Mrs Ashton staked a lot of prestige on this agreement, worked on it for a year, and she won. 


Yet the two leaders are speculated to be possible Nobel Peace Prize candidates, not Lady Ashton. Because, while her efforts deserve acclaim, we must not forget about her leverage: the European Union, already a Peace Prize laureate. Given the two countries’ socio-economic difficulties, Mrs Ashton’s greatest lure was evidently the prospect of EU membership. 


Moralising about the lessons learnt in the New York Times, Lady Ashton stressed her advocacy of soft power, as she did many times before. What she seems not to be aware of is that the EU’s most effective such tool has always been enlargement - and the West Balkans may be the only place where that is still plausible.


The other crucial factor to Mrs Ashton’s success was that peace in the Western Balkans is in the interest of everyone in the EU. The normalisation of the status of Northern Kosovo is, no doubt, essential for that.



Anything else?


Where Member States are divided, and third-party governments cannot be bribed with the prospect of accession, Mrs Ashton has a more difficult task. She has to lead, or in the Lisbon Treaty’s words, “contribute to [the common foreign policy] with her proposals”. Showing the way forward, and then securing the support of member states, that is. As shown by a number of events during her term in office, and most lucidly perhaps by the 2011 war in Libya and the prolonged dispute over the arms embargo on Syria, Cathy Ashton is not up for that challenge. Whether chilled by the vigorous attacks of European press, indebted to member states for their early backing, or perhaps out of principle, she will not act on her own. 


Making speeches on Syria, she has called the situation “appalling”, and asserted “on behalf of all 27 member states” that “leadership does not include the murder of your own people”. Well, you don’t need a great deal of courage for that. It is the basic common ground, where the forming of a true common foreign policy should start from. But quite probably Mrs Ashton had telephoned “the 27” even before these speeches, just to make sure she has a mandate to speak. That although she has been given a mandate by the European Parliament, representing the citizens.


If she has enabled the Union to speak with one voice, as desired by many Eurocrats, that voice is a very pale one.  The core problem is not simply Ashton’s seeking for consensus on every point she makes, leading to delayed action; it is that - as demonstrated by the case of Syria - without leadership, this consensus will always be a very basic one, and her comments inconclusive. As of now, the “common foreign policy” is merely an area of overlap between 27 foreign policies - and what Ashton does is representing this overlap. It is no surprise, then, that “speaking with one voice” on any issue outside of it is far from being a reality.


Mrs Ashton chose the role of a spokesperson for, and arbitrator between, the member states of an international organisation. That approach, and her remarkable mediation skills, as proved by Kosovo and Serbia’s new hopes, has its place in European policy-making. But in times of a rapidly changing and increasingly unstable world, the EU needs more to maintain its position. It needs more than just well-tested enlargement as a foreign policy tool. It needs a true, comprehensive, common foreign policy. It needs unity, unity, unity.


For that, strategic vision, personal initiative, strong leadership are needed. Catherine Ashton is not the woman for that. Whether sensing this or simply tired of office, she has announced that she would not seek to renew her mandate when it expires next year.


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