How Baroness Ashton’s gift for consensus opened the door to Mohamed Morsi

She has been criticised for a ‘soft power’ image, but the EU foreign policy chief was the first diplomat to convince the military in Egypt to allow access to the ex-president for ‘frank’ talks that left her hopeful for the future of democracy

Baroness Catherine Ashton doesn’t need much sleep, which is fortunate, because as the EU foreign policy chief she doesn’t get much of it.

Last week was no exception – in the early hours of Tuesday Ashton was taken by helicopter to Egypt, where she met the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, who is being held at a secret location.

“He was very pleased to see me,” says Ashton when we meet in a central London cafe the day after her return. The pair had a “friendly and open and very frank” conversation. She says Morsi appears to be being treated well – and his fridge is stocked with food. “He was, I thought, on good form given all the circumstances,” she says.

Ashton is the first foreign diplomat who has been allowed access to Morsi since his arrest on 3 July, when he was deposed by the head of the Egyptian army, General Abdulfattah al-Sisi, and replaced with an interim president. The deposition followed large-scale protests against Morsi’s rule. Since then, the country has plunged deeper into turmoil following two turbulent years of transition to democracy.

All of which makes it fairly extraordinary that Ashton, a slight and softly spoken 57-year-old, succeeded in meeting him where many other diplomats and heads of state had failed. Ashton is so understated that no one recognises her as she enters the cafe, despite the fact that she has been all over the news for the past 48 hours. She passes unnoticed through the busy room, laden down with shopping bags.

Why does she think the Egyptian military allowed her to see Morsi?

“The first thing to say is that the relationships with all the key political leaders in Egypt – government, opposition – are well established. This was my 12th or 13th visit … There was no resistance from those who had control of power to taking me to him.

“It was important for all the European countries that wanted to know he [Morsi] was OK, and it was important because we’ve consistently said political prisoners should be released, including him.”

Does Ashton believe the military may have allowed her through out of some misguided sense that – as a woman – her presence was not considered a great cause for concern? “I am British, I am a woman, and that brings with it, for many people, a view of what you may be like, and actually it’s quite a positive view,” she says.

She won’t discuss her conversation with Morsi, but Ashton does admit that their meeting left her feeling more hopeful than not about the future for Egypt as a stable democracy. “I think the Egyptian nation is full of people who want to find a way to go forward, so the task really is to work out the criteria,” she says. “Democracy is not just about an election, it’s about the guarantee of elections to come, and it’s about every single thing that we take for granted as institutions that help support our democracy.”

She recalls having met a young woman in Benghazi, Libya, at the height of the civil war there two years ago. The woman said to her: “We want what you’ve got. You have democracy as part of your everyday life.”

“And it’s stayed with me,” Ashton says, “because actually I know what she meant. It means that the police work for the state. It means the judiciary operate independently, that the administration is not corrupt, that people’s rights are respected, that their views can be heard, and that people have the right to say no and the right to challenge governments respectfully. And in British political life, having been a minister, that happens all the time.”

Ashton is certainly no stranger to being challenged. She comes from a Lancashire mining background and was the first member of her family to go to university. She was made a Labour peer in 1999 and became leader of the House of Lords under former prime minister Gordon Brown.

But when Ashton was appointed to the newly created role of EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy in 2009, she faced a frosty welcome. She was criticised for never having held elected office and for appearing out of her depth and awkward in front of television cameras. The expensive diplomatic service she assembled was condemned as a waste of time and money. One senior German politician commented derisively that Ashton’s was a name not worth remembering. There was even a damaging rumour that she turned off her phone every night at 8pm.

“I’ve never turned my phone off in four years,” she says. “I’m never out of reach, I’m never off duty and I never refuse to take messages unless I’m on a plane. It was a rumour that went around for reasons I don’t understand. It’s never been true.”

Why does she think she attracts such criticism?

“If you’re talking about the EU, there are quite a lot of people who think it could be done better or it’s not needed. So even if you are successful, they start from the principle that it could have been done by somebody else in other circumstances, better.”

She seems sanguine about the vagaries of popularity – something that perhaps comes from being married to the political pollster Peter Kellner. But how much of the criticism stems from sexism?

“I don’t know,” says Ashton. “I’m the first person to do this job, so I’ve nothing to judge it against in terms of being representative. Maybe in 20 years, that question can be answered.”

It is no coincidence, then, that one of her closest professional acquaintances is US secretary of state Hillary Clinton – another woman operating at the highest levels in a male-dominated sphere.

“She was a great ally from the very beginning,” says Ashton. “There is a bit of the ‘girls in public life’ about. There were things that we didn’t have to say between us that we understood about the way that women talk to each other.”

In turn, Clinton has said that she values being able to “blow off a little steam” with Ashton and chat about family and other subjects, as well as geopolitical problems.

Ashton stops short of accusing her critics of sexism, but it is true that her diplomacy is often described in terms such as “soft power” or “quiet negotiation”, which would be less likely to be applied to a man in her position.

“I’m always interested in the descriptions of how I do things,” she says. “The only thing I want to be is effective. It is probably true that as women we navigate our lives differently because we’re navigating relationships, perhaps. But I then stray into my own fear of generalisation … I guess a lot of the things I’ve done in my life have been about trying to find solutions or trying to build consensus, so it’s partly me, partly the job, partly that I’m a woman.”

Ashton refuses to be drawn on recent news reports of online harassment of feminist campaigners and journalists. She would, she says, rather let her achievements speak for themselves. Whatever her critics say, these achievements are not easily dismissed.

In May 2012 Ashton headed an EU operation to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia using a combination of diplomatic, defence and development initiatives. As a result, piracy in the area dropped by 95%, she says.

Earlier this year she persuaded the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo to normalise relations in order to be eligible for EU membership. The talks were arduous: so far, Ashton has spent 150 hours at the negotiating table.

“We meet again at the end of August,” she says. “We’ve done a first agreement and I hope to do a second.”

After her meeting with Morsi, Ashton has cast herself as a potential mediator in the disputes between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. Both sides appear to respect her impartiality.

“Egypt is at the beginning of what is an important and what will be a bumpy journey,” she says. “When you’re able to represent 28 nations [as an EU commissioner], they’ve all been through all kinds of turmoil. We’ve got people who really do understand about transition, about developing a democracy, about how difficult it can be. They know about the aftermath of war, they know about all sorts of things, and all of that wonderful tapestry of knowledge is available and some can be useful.”

Ashton is stepping down next year, but if Egypt’s warring factions do sit down around a negotiating table the chances are that Ashton will have played a key role in getting them there.

By The Guardian
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