When Catherine Ashton was named High Representative for Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy for the European Union, the predominantly male foreign policy community harrumphed its disapproval. She lacked star power, and she had no background in foreign affairs. She’d been the EU’s trade commissioner, and before that she was in the Parliament as Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Lancashire, a coal mining community, where she grew up in a working-class family.
No one was more surprised than Ashton herself to get the nod for the newly created post. She hadn’t campaigned for it, and emerged only as the consensus choice after considerable jockeying among the 27 EU member nations. That was November 2009; now she is almost four years into her five-year term, and doubts about her leadership in the sensitive post have been put to rest by her performance.
“She’s the second Iron Lady,” says Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco. “In a European Union that is disjointed and far from united, she along with William Hague, the British foreign secretary, has become the principle voice for foreign policy out of Europe.”
Last month, Lady Ashton announced that an accord she forged between Serbia and Kosovo, longstanding enemies, would allow Serbia to soon join the EU, and for Kosovo to begin the process. “It is delicate diplomacy and she should get credit for that,” former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told The Daily Beast. “This is not easy, because the situation between Kosovo and Serbia is as complicated as anything I’ve ever seen.”
Albright should know. She pushed for military intervention when she was in the Clinton administration, and for a time, before a NATO-led bombing campaign produced results, critics dubbed it “Madeleine’s war.” The wars of the ‘90s subsided in a cold and uneasy peace, and in 2008 Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. Both countries want to become members of the EU, and a condition of membership is that they work out their differences.
Before Ashton stepped in to initiate talks last year, there was no direct contact between Belgrade and Pristina. “To the contrary, there were frequent incidents, lots of bad blood and no attempt at reconciliation,” says Ashton’s spokesperson, Maya Kocijancic. The prime ministers, both men in their mid-40s, had lived through the breakup of Yugoslavia and all the atrocities, but had never met. That first meeting between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci lasted only one hour, the equivalent of a drop-by in diplomatic time, but 12 rounds of talks followed, initially one per month then in recent months several rounds as the historic accord between the two leaders took shape.
Last October, with the talks just getting underway, Ashton traveled to the Balkans with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “They were both women in high profile positions in global foreign policy, and they get along very well,” says Kocijancic. Fiona Hill with the Brookings Institution, watching them interact at various events, says Ashton “really bonded with Hillary Clinton. They’re both no nonsense women with a bit of steel.” Wendy Sherman, under secretary of State, recalls a meeting of all 27 foreign ministers of the EU at the U.N. General Assembly meeting last year, with the High Representative and U.S. secretary of State sitting at opposite ends of an incredibly long table, working their Blackberries to coordinate back and forth. “They worked seamlessly, both smart women, well prepared and getting the job done.”
Ashton also coordinates and chairs the P5+1 (the 5 members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear program, “so she obviously must have significant respect in the U.S. to carry that mantle,” says former Ambassador Ginsberg. Under Secretary Sherman, the third highest-ranking diplomat at State, leads the U.S. delegation in the talks. She recalls Ashton keeping everyone focused and in good spirits when negotiations unexpectedly moved into a second day because of a sandstorm. “She is a savvy, tough negotiator, but at the same time she is a working person’s person,” Sherman told The Daily Beast. “She’s not pretentious, she doesn’t have airs. She comes to work to solve problems.”
Ashton doesn’t have the name recognition or the glamour of International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, with whom she’s sometimes compared, but what she lacks she makes up for with sheer doggedness. “Our boss pretty much works non-stop and travels non-stop,” says Kocijancic. “She’s very much hands on.” Those qualities helped produce the breakthrough in the Balkans and quieted much of the sniping that she experienced early in her term. “She got a lot of flack, much of it sexist, about how she looks—she doesn’t have a glamorous persona. She’s very substantive, and she didn’t look for style over substance,” says Hill, recalling that even the iconic Margaret Thatcher got a makeover to change her voice and hair when she entered political life. “Catherine Ashton hasn’t done any of that stuff.”
Having succeeded on her terms, Ashton says she will not seek reappointment to a second term, that it will be time for someone new to take over the job. Among her challenges was the building of a European External Action Service, a diplomatic corps equivalent to the U.S. Foreign Service that is recruited in part from EU member nations. As the first and only EU high representative for foreign policy, she likes to compare herself to a pilot who needs to fly a plane but the plane is still being built. The ride may have been bumpy at first, but with the Kosovo-Serbia accord in place, Lady Ashton appears headed for a smooth landing.