If someone held the patent for the word ‘nice' they would make a fortune today: the only thing anyone can find to say about Lady Ashton is that she's nice. Sometimes she's just nice, other times she's nice in comparison to Lord Mandelson, her predecessor as EU trade commissioner. She also has nice people skills, and is nice to work with. Perhaps a fashion journalist will cast her eye over her soon and pronounce her dress sense nice; but maybe not. Or maybe one of those ‘EU diplomats' who are the constant source of all knowledge in Brussels will be so kind as to say she has nice handwriting or something equally patronising. And that is just part of the problem.
Cathy Ashton was chosen because she is from the right political family, from a state that needed to get a big portfolio but not in finance or trade since it is not trusted on either any more, and because she is a woman. On the whole the dire politicians who made the decision couldn't care less about women — or indeed anything else, given the appalling way in which this appointment process was handled and its ridiculous results but they have a new problem in their life: the European parliament.
That democratically elected chamber, which they have habitually ignored, has struck again: demanding some form of say, rather than just allowing pure horse-trading to prevail. This came as a shock to the political leaders of the EU this summer, when they nodded through Jos Manuel Barroso for a second term as European commission president over yet another dinner, only to find the parliament demanded he produce full proposals for his next tenure, and undergo even a semblance of an interview before just being rubber-stamped through. Brussels and the capitals were in commotion over this state of affairs, but nonetheless Barroso had to do it, meeting with all political groups, campaigning to get voted in, and eventually succeeding.
But then, just when the leaders thought everything was safe, the parliament struck again: demanding gender balance in the incoming commission with a threat of vetoing it all (the parliament cannot reject a single commissioner; it can only accept or veto the entire college). A series of quiet meetings suggested they could well be serious which is where the foreign minister job came in: it is double-hatted, being a combination of the council high representative position (currently held by Javier Solana) and the external relations commissioner, in addition to being a vice-president of the commission. As a commissioner, the new incumbent would have to be interviewed by parliament, and if not found acceptable not only would the new commission be vetoed, but the new internationally touted EU foreign minister would have to be replaced.
So a woman it had to be. And since the EPP the centre-right parliamentary grouping demanded the council president's slot, it had to be from the centre left. And a Brit. To this the council added its own requirements: no one with any international profile (clearly redundant for an international affairs post), or with any experience in large organisations (even more redundant given the new incumbent needs to build a new bureaucracy from scratch). Throw it all in the blender and voila! Out comes nice Lady Ashton.
The foreign minister position has always been the more serious of the two jobs. It was only because Tony Blair wanted to be called president and knew he would then be out of office and so put it about he was interested that the ‘top job‘ became at all glamorous. Without his bid it would not have occurred to anyone the job was remotely interesting, and a relatively unknown broker may be the right person for it. But the foreign minister is a position that has the prestige of the council with the money and clout of the commission. Even if everyone assumes an unknown will either botch or do no harm in it, the job will involve a huge amount of influence around the world, and therefore upon everyone in the EU. If you sit on a budget of billions, and control a staff with delegations all around the world, you make a difference even if you do not intend to.
So for what it's worth, a democratically elected chamber did intervene, a bit, but that does nothing for the reality we are faced with: two appointees who are perfectly nice. And an EU that not only will not have a bigger imprint upon the world, but cannot look the world in the eye, especially not the developing world: for all its cant about transparency and demanding democracy and insisting upon accountability in those poor benighted states that are not as enlightened as Europe, it has done a series of dirty deals to appoint not elect or even select two senior officials.
Or rather, to be fair, it is the political leaders who have done the deed, but once again will allow the European, and world, public to blame ‘the EU' that amorphous nasty body in Brussels that rules Europe. For what it's worth, many in that body are having a bad time: appalled by this dastardly triumph of the narrow, tactical and incompetent body that dares calls itself the leadership of the EU.
Ilana Bet-El is a writer, historian and political analyst.