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EU's Ashton says Europe must unite on foreign policy

Source: Reuters - Wed 10th Mar 2010

The European Union's foreign affairs chief laid out a stark choice for the region on Wednesday, saying it must pull together in foreign policy or be sidelined by China and India.

Presenting her agenda for the next five years after widespread criticism of her performance, Catherine Ashton told the European Parliament that Europe was declining as a world power and losing influence.

Europe's share of the world's population has fallen from a quarter a century ago to just 7 percent today and its share of global output has dropped from 28 percent to 21 percent since World War Two, leaving it lagging Asian powers, she said.

"The economies of China, India and others are racing ahead at 10 percent a year. Economic weight is translating into political clout and self-confidence" said Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

"You feel it everywhere from negotiations on climate change and Iran, to big energy deals in Africa or Central Asia. If we pull together we can safeguard our interests. If not, others will make the decisions for us. It's that simple."

Ashton, 53, a former EU trade commissioner, was a surprise appointment to her new post. She has struggled to overcome her critics since starting the job in December, has little experience in diplomacy and has never held elected office.

She signalled to parliament she would be pragmatic in foreign policy, and link it closely with trade and finance.

Ashton described the EU's priorities as maintaining close ties with the United States but also having a strong "neighbourhood" policy for countries close to the EU borders. 

She said the Union, representing 27 countries and more than 500 million people, should build on its alliances with NATO and the United Nations.

"Our wider international credibility depends on getting our neighbourhood right" she said, referring to EU policy in the Balkans and with former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine, a transit route for Russian energy supplies to Europe.


Ashton also underlined the importance of the Middle East - where she will travel next week, visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Syria and Jordan - and development and security in Africa, particularly Somalia.

"To protect our interests and promote our values, we must be engaged abroad" she said, adding that many poorer states wanted more European involvement but Europe was not doing enough. "This is the time to be smart and ambitious."

The EU has reformed its institutions under its new Lisbon treaty, hoping to gain more diplomatic influence to match its trade and business power.

Ashton is in charge of setting up an EU diplomatic corps, or External Action Service (EAS), which will have as many as 3,000 diplomats driving foreign, aid and trade policies.

Ashton said the EAS, whose structure was expected to be finalised by the end of April but now looks likely to be delayed because of bureaucratic infighting, was essential to the EU avoiding being left behind by other powers.

"Right now we have a chance to build what many across Europe and many in this house have long wanted - a stronger, more credible European foreign policy" she said.

"We should respond as Europeans. First by pulling together, because unity is a precondition for influence. And second by taking action, because the answer to a problem cannot be a paper or a meeting. If you want results, you have to act."

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