Yesterday there was an amusing story going around about how the French Europe minister has invited Catherine Ashton, the native Brit recently appointed as the EU’s first foreign minister, to learn “the language of diplomacy” at a school near Avignon.
It was more of a tongue-in-cheek jest than an actual offer for assistance, but Ashton has taken him up on it and will be spending a month this summer in the south of France taking French lessons. But of course France’s offer wasn’t really about language. It reflects the increasing French dissatisfaction with Ashton as she creates the new EU diplomatic corps, which they fear is going to be dominated by the English.
Ashton speaks only rusty French, and she will only take questions at press conferences in English – a fact which has deeply irritated the French media. The fact that Ashton does not speak fluent French has been continually pointed out by those who think she is not qualified for the job. This is particularly true in France, where the phrase “the language of diplomacy” is not used with a smirk or as an old-timey throwback, but as their actual understanding of the world. Of course the reality is that French ceased to be the language of diplomacy 70 years ago, but don’t tell that to the French. Even within the EU, English has largely replaced French as the lingua franca since the accession of the Eastern European member states in 2004.
But putting the usual snarky Franco-Anglo teasing aside, the growing conflict between Ashton and France is about much more than language. Rightly or wrongly, the French feel they have been shut out of an area that their self-perceived role as a world power makes them well-suited for. The fact that so many of the posts in the new diplomatic corps seem to be going to Brits has greatly alarmed them, and is most likely the reason they are pushing for the creation of a secretary-general post who would serve under Ashton. The assumption is that that new position would go to a Frenchman. Sarkozy is said to be lining up his US ambassador Pierre Vimont for the role.
If Ashton was considering taking on the suggestion from France, she may be reconsidering that after being warned in stark terms by MEPs this week that the proposed post is actually a trick the French are using to undermine her authority.
The Times newspaper, German Green deputy Franziska Brantner warned her that, “If you have such a figure, a secretary-general, then Catherine Ashton becomes a puppet really. She will be the one who gives the speeches that the secretary-general has approved. It is pretty clear that they are trying to establish a strong figure under her so that she might be the one who gives nice talks but really the power will be somewhere else.”
Ashton will unveil her plans for the structure of the new corps later this month. It is thought that she would prefer to have one secretary general, believing he or she would serve in the same model as a British permanent secretary. But she is being warned that the model of a French secretary general is a much more powerful position than its British counterpart, and she would be unwise to create it. They are advising her instead to create three deputy positions in order to ensure she maintains control.
One can see why Ashton told MEPs earlier this week that she has “an impossible job”. As the French and the British jockey to take control of the EU’s new foreign policy arm, one wonders how these two long-feuding nations are going to reach consensus on the most important foreign policy issues of the day. It will be a tricky exercise, and only time will tell if Ashton is up to the challenge.