“We’re starting a betting pool on how long Ashton has left,” a fellow hack said as I sat down Wednesday evening in Brussels for an off-record briefing on Egypt and Tunisia from EU foreign policy chief Catherinne Ashton’s Middle East and north Africa managing director. “What are you in for? Two months? A week?”
This was only the slightly more jocular version of the growing elite consensus, expressed most prominently by a widely read Le Monde piece last week that described the Baroness as “nulle”, or “useless”. A pro-democracy upheaval is occurring in “our” sphere of influence and the EU is playing second fiddle to Washington, as one MEP put it, in dealing with the situation.
Ashton’s people deny this and insist that she, unlike her US counterpart Hilary Clinton, is hamstrung by the need to forge a common position between 27 fissiparous member states. But the critics will have none of this. For them, now is the make-or-break moment for what has been, so the consensus goes, a thoroughly unremarkable performance over the last 13 months for the EU’s new diplomatic-corps-cum-foreign-ministry, the External Action Service, and it’s grand poobah, High Representative Ashton.
Before I could answer my friend, the advisor marched into the press room to give us what was in the end a thoroughly unenlightening repetition of the official line, identical to that of the White House, which is that the EU supports an “orderly transition” to democracy.
A diplomat from a large EU member state last week told me that when the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers sat down to decide what their stance vis-à-vis Egypt was, there had been a minor kerfuffle in the room about whether to use the word ‘transition’ or ‘transformation’ so as to distinguish themselves from what the US had said hours before. Others however were concerned that if they used a different word, journalists would grill them on whether this meant there was some disagreement with Washington. In the end, they decided to use both words.
A British liberal MEP complained on Monday how al Jazeera regularly breaks into its 24-hour coverage of events in Tahrir Square whenever Hilary Clinton, Obama or even White House spokesman Robert Gibbs is due to comment on the situation, but not once have they broken away to broadcast any development in the EU’s stance.
And it is true that if you do an analysis of the timeline of the EU’s change in position as demonstrations have spread geographically and grown in the level of threat to the rainbow of Western-allied authoritarian regimes across the region, you see that Europe has marched lock-step with the US, issuing statements nigh-on interchangeable with those of the State Department for the last three weeks, usually, as another EU diplomat said, defending Europe’s position, “not more than a few hours or at most half a day later” than Washington.
But the lack of an EU stamp on events should only be of interest to anyone that agrees that it is right and sensible that any country or region should even have a “sphere of influence”. Any genuine democrat vomits at the idea that one country, or in this case, the EU, should by right be the watchful parent of ‘less-advanced’ peoples.
Genuine democrats cheer the uprisings without caveat and laugh uproariously when they hear that Europe and America somehow can now support democracy in the region after 30 years of support for Mubarak and 24 for Ben Ali.
The positions towards the region of both the EU and US have been tightly limited to self-interest for the last few weeks, no different from the last three decades.
Both the EU and US have only shifted away from unquestioning support of the regimes when it is clear that the existing stance is untenable. And the overriding concern now is that whoever follows Ben Ali and Mubarak be equally craven in defence of Western commercial and geostrategic interests.
Both the EU and US throughout the upheavals have decorated their statements with the language of “stability” and “dialogue” and calls on “both sides” to engage in “peaceful” actions. As if any power that sells helicopter gunships to dictators has the right to chastise opposition forces for not demonstrating “peacefully”. General Dynamics may sell its Abrams tanks to Cairo and Raytheon its missile systems, but the riot-control trucks of the hated police bear the logo of Italy’s Iveco.
Brussels must be overjoyed that the new boss in Tunisia so far is little different from the old boss. When Tunis’ new, post-revolutionary foreign minister, Ahmed Ounaies, a retired career diplomat and longtime UN ambassador of the former regime visited the European capital on 2 February, he was careful to describe to reporters the outgoing administration as a “despotic parenthesis” but then went on to praise what Ben Ali had wrought by liberalising his country’s economy under EU tutelage.
Tunisia had gone through a "revolution, going from a statist economy to a liberal economy,” he said. “This with the help of the EU. We made huge progress in this regard."
Even more reassuringly, he added unprompted that Tunisia was not in the business of "exporting" their revolution to Egypt.
But what must have put European souls most at rest was what Ashton managed to win in agreements from the newly-minted but aging minister: further economic liberalisation - in particular regarding financial controls and access to public procurement markets for EU service companies, continued action to prevent irregular immigration from the rest of the African continent, and the exclusion from government of forces that do not “abide by democratic norms”, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.
Meanwhile regarding Egypt, Ashton and other European leaders, no different from their American counterparts, have consistently refused to call on Mubarak to step down but instead have favoured a shepherding of the democracy movement away from the streets into a focus on the much more manageable, already scheduled elections in September.
Across the Atlantic, both sides have rallied to the side of the new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, since 1993 the head of the hated Mukharabat, or General Intelligence Service, as chaperone of the “transition”, and, they hope, the replacement for Mubarak, who is widely (although not unanimously - Italy in particular is still pinning its hopes on the 82-year-old pharaoh) now agreed to be past his sell-by date.
"It's pretty clear that Suleiman is now their man in Cairo," Human Rights Watch's Peter Bouckaert told me from Egypt.
"They know Suleiman very well. He was the key CIA contact and for US and EU counter-terror operators. I'm sure they feel very comfortable with Suleiman. For the EU and US, these relations are more important than the aspirations of the people of Egypt."
The watchwords now are the oft-repeated “orderly transition”, for which we should read: “managed succession”.
"They are moving very hard for a contained transition process, a managed succession that is much more limited than what the protesters are demanding,” Bouckaert continued. “We are very concerned about the increased role of Suleiman, that he will carry forward a military-led transition and steal this revolt from the demonstrators and rig elections."
In the past few days, military intelligence services have stepped up their activities rounding up pro-democracy activists and journalists, no doubt with renewed confidence now that they know that, again, both the EU and US have found their new champion.
"There is enormous pressure to adhere to the military-led process of reform," he said. "It is impossible that a man so central to the security of the regime will be able to manage the dismantling of that same regime."
But none of this is what Ashton’s EU critics are worried about. Were she to fall on her sword, one can be sure that it most decidedly it has nothing to do with human rights and democracy, but because she symbolises the inability of 27 still-proud nation-states to craft a coherent common EU foreign-policy between themselves that is neither a march too far ahead of Washington nor at the same time too limp for the great powers they still believe themselves to be. They want someone that will act like America’s lieutenant but not speak like one.
Indeed, there is something forlorn, tragically Shakespearean even, about where the hapless Baroness ‘Just call me Cathy’ Ashton finds herself now. When Ashton was appointed in 2009 to Europe’s top foreign-policy position, the Daily Mail published a black-and-white photograph they had dug up from 1982 of her when she was still just the 26-year-old national treasurer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, outside 10 Downing Street demanding Thatcher turn back UK forces headed for war in the Falklands. Eastern EU capitals were aghast that this one-time committed anti-war activist should be entrusted with such a job.
It is quite some distance from anti-Falklands campaigner to Made-in-EU life-jacket of Egyptian autocracy. What would the awkward, scruffy-haired young Cathy in the photo from almost thirty years ago say if she - famously a staunch Doctor Who fan with a full-size Dalek in her front room - could travel forward in time and see herself today?
You know, she might just tell her older incarnation to resign too.
Leigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.