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And Then What? by Catherine Ashton: The curious world of EU diplomacy during ‘one of the most turbulent times’

Among nuggets are Putin’s penchant for ‘controlling the time’ - but murky aspects of EU policy go uninterrogated

Former EU representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton
And Then What? Inside Stories of 21st-Century Diplomacy
Author: Catherine Ashton
ISBN-13: 978-1783966349
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson
Guideline Price: £20

Catherine Ashton was the first person and probably last ever Briton at the helm of EU foreign affairs. It was a job foisted on her for political reasons, and one that she did not seem able to decline. Luckily, she says, she didn’t suffer from jet lag.

The role was new, created under the Lisbon treaty, and she was supposed to help the EU’s 27 countries speak with a unified voice. She calls the period that came next, from 2009 to 2014, “one of the most turbulent in living memory”.

And Then What? Inside Stories of 21st-Century Diplomacy includes what she counts as victories: the 2013 agreement between Serbia and Kosovo over the functioning of Kosovo’s north; and – most time-consumingly – the Iran nuclear deal. Her listed failures are “unresolved tragedy in Syria, the chaos of Libya, [and] the horror of war in Ukraine”. There are also chapters on Egypt; piracy in Somalia; natural disasters in Haiti and Japan; and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine.

This is not a “comprehensive history”, but it offers a look into the often curious world of diplomacy.


There, tiny details can make the difference between success and failure, Ashton writes. We see some of the minutiae and anxieties involved in the choreography of formal meetings (“standing in front of the wrong flag could cause uproar”), and the choreography of the less formal, but equally important, dinners. Ashton’s experience may be of particular interest, given that she was usually the only woman present.

We engage with people we neither like nor respect, and whose views are wildly different to our own, posing for the official photo while hoping they will spend their days in a prison cell

—  Catherine Ashton

There are tips for aspiring diplomats, such as on the benefits of finalising wider points of agreement first and postponing discussions about detail. There is also an almost blind acceptance of the necessity of getting on with people who may be guilty of, or even still overseeing, horrific things.

In her foreword, Ashton says she was representing the “views and values” of EU nations, and the “first obligation of government” is “keeping people safe”.

To that end, “we engage with people we neither like nor respect, and whose views are wildly different to our own, posing for the official photo while hoping they will spend their days in a prison cell.”

Eastern Partnership summit could do with Catherine Ashton’s diplomatic magicOpens in new window ]

She veers into flattering the objectionable, like when she calls now Egyptian president Abdulfattah el-Sisi “a philosopher general”. El-Sisi ousted Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. Ashton was the first foreign diplomat to see Morsi in the aftermath: he would die in captivity years later, amid allegations he was being denied medical care.

Was what the EU did in Egypt more broadly correct? It seems murky, and here, as in some other chapters, Ashton fails to tackle these questions head on. Is ignoring certain broader truths part of the diplomat’s job? It might seem so.

Her descriptions of those she meets can be insightful or humorous. We’re reminded of Silvio Berlusconi’s love of sex; Putin’s strategy of “controlling the time”. Alexander Lukashenko (“the last dictator left in Europe”) has a moustache “worthy of a caricature dictator”.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov (“mischievous by nature and dangerous by profession”), makes regular appearances: doodling; “unhelpfully” complaining about the usage of American English; and producing a bottle of Champagne in front of non-drinking Iranians.

Belarus's president, Alexander Lukashenko. Photograph: Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty

Given all the people she spends ample time with, it seems surprising that Ashton was in a “state of shock” when she unexpectedly spent 45 minutes with then US president Barack Obama.

The US looms large, sometimes leaving the EU out of discussions – even ones that the EU took the lead on. One wonders how power dynamics might have changed in the wake of Brexit, which is barely mentioned.

While Ashton says that press freedom is essential for functioning democracies, she “dreaded” the media.

She criticises media coverage: “some reporters drove us quietly nuts”; there was “much negative, ill-informed” reporting at the time of the Iran nuclear deal; and in Libya, journalists were “demand[ing] slogans that sounded decisive and strong” when the reality was “messy”.

She suggests that many journalists do not understand diplomacy at all. “The art of compromise is often sneered at by the media, who prefer to see strong figures and conflict,” she writes.

Though there are admissions of failure, there is little discussion of times when the EU might have been on the wrong side morally

There is less recognition of how vital scrutiny is, particularly given the wide variety and breadth of citizens she was representing, and how she was in a key position at a point when the EU’s workings became increasingly opaque to both outsiders and many inside the system.

Though there are admissions of failure, there is little discussion of times when the EU might have been on the wrong side morally. Migration policy, notably, is not discussed, though diplomats from other countries across much of the world will tell you that stymying it is now a key priority for the EU’s external action service. Ashton left her role in October 2014, shortly before the so-called European migrant crisis, but she was there during the 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck, when more than 350 people drowned, and there was widespread outcry about the lack of European action.

Though crises abound, Ashton’s account is mainly an insight into what is stable: a legion of tax-funded civil servants paid to hold meetings, eat meals, and above all keep channels of dialogue open.

Sally Hayden is author of My Fourth Time, We Drowned

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa