Poor choice of wording has put the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Cathy Ashton under fire this week, when she ill-advisedly compared the shootings of three young children in Toulouse by a suspected al-Qaeda trained terrorist to the deaths of Palestinian children in Gaza.
The source of the problem, according to EU diplomats, was a mistake by one of Ashton’s press team which led to a faulty transcript being issued to media, following a Brussels event for young Palestinian activists. In written version of her speech, circulated to journalists, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs paid tribute to children killed in ‘terrible circumstances’, and, to illustrate her point, referenced the Toulouse attack, the deaths of children in terrorist attacks in Norway and Syria, and, controversially, Gaza, without any counterbalancing reference to Palestinian attacks on Israel.
‘When we know what’s happening in Syria, when we see what’s happened in Gaza, in different parts of the world – we remember young people and children who lose their lives,’ Ashton reportedly said.
But due to an error by Ashton’s media team, the crucial phrase ‘and Sderot’ was omitted from the write up, reinforcing the impression of a linkage between Israeli military operations in Gaza and the Toulouse murders. (To clarify, Sderot is an Israeli town near the Gaza Strip that has been targeted by Palestinian militias.)
A revised version was hurriedly issued by Ashton’s press advisers, in an attempt to cover up the gaffe and smooth over already fraught relations with Israel. Michael Mann, Ashton’s chief spokesperson, came under fire from journalists at the Commission’s Midday Briefing on Tuesday, and the new mention of Sderot is unlikely to placate Israeli leaders, who have spent the last two days insisting that their efforts to limit civilian casualties in Gaza should not been compared to violent and lawless attacks.
The avoidable mistake is obviously regrettable, if not hugely embarrassing. But the real issue is why Ashton thought it at all advisable to go anywhere near the subject of the Toulouse shootings when talking about the Middle East. It was a major diplomatic gaffe, demonstrative of a naivety one would not expect from anyone even vaguely versed in foreign policy – let alone the EU’s chief foreign affairs spokesperson.
The first anniversary this month of the EU’s diplomatic unit – the External Action Service – raised some probing questions from member states and regional foreign-policy gurus over the calibre of its leadership. Tuesday’s comments – inadvertent or otherwise – will only lead to further speculation that Ashton should and will go. The FT ran a story earlier this month that London is negotiating a deal that would see Lady Ashton axed from her current job and effectively swapped with EU Financial Markets Commissioner Michel Barnier, in a covert bid to rid the City of London of its troublesome Frenchman and his talk of financial transaction taxes and regulation of shadow banking.
Ashton continued to fuel the fire yesterday when she cancelled a door stop for journalists ahead of the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee meeting in Brussels, designed to discuss ongoing aid for Palestine. Her silence has been filled with talk of emergency meetings and furious phone calls from Israeli diplomats.
Insiders say that Ashton’s team is losing patience with her awful, gaffe prone approach to media relations. It’s surely only a matter of time before they walk out completely and Ashton moves on to the dryer world of financial regulation.
But even then, serious questions need to be asked whether Ashton really has the political judgment required for any kind of senior EU posting.