EU LOOKS TO PROVE GLOBAL DIPLOMATIC CREDENTIALS.

With the opening of the European External Action Service's (EAS) office doors and the hiring of new staff, High Representative Catherine Ashton's new diplomatic service will start taking shape in a much more visible way in the first half of 2011. Her political tasks may well be considerably less rewarding as she strives to make a name for herself as an international stateswoman, conducting talks with Iran on its nuclear programme and seeking a way to push forward the Middle East peace process.

The Hungarian Presidency's foreign policy priorities are concentrated much closer to home, on the European Union's immediate neighbourhood (see separate article), but Ashton herself is giving precedence to raising the profile of the EU on the global stage both through the EAS and by acting as a high-profile broker in international relations.

ASHTON THE STATESWOMAN

The high representative's biggest test to date as a global figure has been the recent talks in Geneva with Iran where she represented the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. When these continue in January in Istanbul, Ashton will face a high-pressure situation unlike any she had during her first year in office, requiring a solid demonstration of the talent for consensus-building skills her proponents claim is one of her key qualifications for the job. The particularly difficult diplomatic nature of convincing Tehran to guarantee that it will not pursue a nuclear weapons programme, which it has always denied but few internationally believe, means Ashton could easily fail. However, sources close to the high representative have told Europolitics she is keenly aware that progress in this arena will mark her out as a truly global player.

A second particularly difficult foreign policy goal for Ashton early next year, and perhaps equally sink-or-swim in nature, will be trying to find a role for herself in the Middle East peace process. She visited the region three times in 2010, including going to Gaza and receiving both Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Brussels for separate meetings. In an international scene already dominated by a range of well-established envoys, however, it will be difficult for Ashton to differentiate herself from American, Arab or UN efforts. By broadly following the lead of the US, with a slightly greater emphasis on promoting economic growth in Gaza, though, she may share some of the glory if - and it is of course an ambitious if' - progress is...

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