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European Foreign Policy at a Crossroads

Former EU foreign policy chief and current Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow Catherine Ashton weighed in on world happenings, from Brexit to the Iran deal and from Russia’s disinformation warfare to Europe’s interpretation of the signals from Washington.

Date & Time

Nov. 16, 2017
10:00am – 11:00am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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European Foreign Policy at a Crossroads

The European Union's efforts to forge a common foreign and security policy have yielded notable accomplishments – notably in the Balkans, in securing a nuclear deal with Iran, and in the very process of enlarging the bloc. Now, the durability of those achievements and the future of the EU's ability to execute a collective foreign policy are clouded by a new constellation of factors: Russia's belligerence in Ukraine and its "near abroad" under Putin, Turkey's autocratic turn under Erdogan, Britain's decision to leave the EU, and Trump's "America first" foreign policy. Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU's first ever foreign minister, assessed these trends in conversation with Wilson Center President Jane Harman. 

Key Quotes

Baroness Catherine Ashton

On disinformation campaigns:

“We are in a very interesting phase of a new kind of small ‘w’ warfare, which is about the power of information and access to it… The problem for governments is we’re way behind in trying to work out how we manage that.”

"I don’t want to give [the Russians] too much credit either for what they managed to do. I think that the issues that created in Britain the vote to leave the European Union – some of them are very deep and long-term. People have, for a long, long time, wondered what this project was about, and successive governments have not really answered that question satisfactorily.”

On Brexit:

“I think what will be clear [is that] whatever happens [regarding Brexit] is that Britain will remain a strong defense and security partner for NATO and also for the EU, because many of the missions that the EU has been engaged in inevitably are missions that Britain would want to be engaged in as a member state in any event.”

On EU-U.S. ties:

“I think the EU would probably feel that it’s still not entirely certain where the [Trump] administration wants to develop its relationship with Europe as a group of countries… I think we’ll see more as next year goes on how it develops in terms of common issues, common threats, common concerns – whether there is a stronger sense of a U.S. European strategy than I have at the moment.”

On the Iran nuclear deal:

“The [Iran] deal… is what it is. It does what it says on the can. It doesn’t try and do lots of other things that people would like to do in dealing with the relationship or lack of it with Iran – and it was never meant to. It was one purpose: The brief I had from the Security Council was to give confidence to the purely peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. It was etched on my heart. And that’s what we did.”

“There were real concerns that we were approaching the point when it was quite conceivable that we could have seen a nuclear-armed Iran, and now we don’t. Therefore, the agreement, for what it is, works. I’m a simple soul; if something works, I don’t see any point in ripping it up. I do see a lot of point in trying to negotiate or discuss or sanction or whatever you like around lots of other questions and issues, but not this one.”

On Russia and Ukraine:

“The kind of cold, chilly, frozen-type conflict is a handy vehicle to keep nations from moving forward in the way they might wish to that’s not in your interests and it’s not as costly in any sense as a hotter conflict might be. So, as I see it, there’s going to be a continuation for some time of that approach. I think in Ukraine, part of the issue will be how the U.S. responds and how far the continuation of policy towards supporting Ukraine’s independent moves will be seen to be a key factor in American foreign policy.”

“I don’t see how [arming Ukraine is] going to help the people in the east of Ukraine, who are confronted with a pretty awful life and the risk of spasmodic warfare breaking out. For me, it’s got to be now about diplomatic solutions or trying to find a way of resolving [the conflict] in a political sense.”

On backsliding in Poland and Hungary:

“One of my regrets of my own country’s decision to leave [the EU] is we have a strong relationship with Poland. We have a huge Polish community. And we have a strong relationship with Hungary. I would hope, even if we do leave, that we would still be willing to work with colleagues in both those countries and beyond to try and understand the importance of making sure they provide for their people what is an essential and vital part of being a member of the EU. We are values-driven if we are nothing else.”

On migration and refugees:

“We don’t have magic solutions to problems when they come like this. What we do know is we’re going to have to think of longer-term solutions, which include the fact that many populations in Europe need young people to come and work, need people willing to be part of their society, and need to do it in a managed way that doesn’t for some communities make them feel uncertain or unsure about what has happened to them.”

On North Korea:

“In the course of the Iran negotiations, North Korea was quite interested in what we were doing – not necessarily because this is what they would want, but they were just interested to see how it was all managed and how the relationships were managed and how the outcomes seemed to be outcomes that could be sold in each country at the same time, which is not always an easy thing to pull off… But as I said before, diplomatically, if you then don’t stick to that or you say, ‘Actually, we want to move away from that,’ I think that sends a different message to North Korea.”

Jane Harman

On disinformation campaigns:

“I often say that the problems are digital, but politicians are analog. Our solutions are laundry lists of ‘you can do this’ and you ‘can’t do that,’ and if you’re a kid hacker, first of all, you pay no attention to that, and second of all, you can run circles around that kind of shopping list.”

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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. It does this through scholars-in-residence, seminars, policy study groups, media commentary, international conferences and publications. Activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The program investigates European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including globalization, digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance, and relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.  Read more

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