Why Britain should be proud of Baroness Ashton

baroness_ashton.jpgThe historic nuclear weapons deal reached with Iran is the result of years of diplomacy, dialogue and determination – much of it unseen and unheralded.

The agreement of Tehran to curb enrichment and increase access to inspectors shows the deal’s potential to be the most significant announcement between Iran and the West for decades, and highlights the scale of the progress that has been made.

What has been missing from most of the reporting of the agreement, however, is coverage of the role in securing an interim deal of the European Union and EU High Representative Baroness Ashton, the chosen representative of the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany).

She has been at the heart of the talks, helping bring about results few thought possible, an example of a British negotiator at the top table, negotiating on matters of war and peace, a true statesman, not interested in personal glory, just quietly going about her business away from the spotlight too many politicians crave.

This is a triumph for Ashton’s method of listen and negotiate over the chest-beating braggadocio of certain testosterone-fuelled world leaders for whom calmness and composure are absent traits.

The Iran deal follows her ‘mission impossible’ success in the Balkans earlier this year, when she persuaded the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo to sign an agreement, effecting the prospect of a sustained, lasting peace in a region long blighted by war, division and hatred. It should also be noted the carrot of EU accession helped persuade Serbia to recognise Kosovo’s independence.

And let us not forget her efforts in Egypt, where in August she became the first diplomat to be granted access to deposed President Mohamed Morsi, casting herself as a potential mediator between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military regime, with both sides respecting her impartiality.

Throughout the past four years, Baroness Ashton has faced a torrent of abuse, much of it barely-concealed sexism, from a hostile press.

The Spectator’s Rod Liddle said she was “totally unqualified for almost every job she has done”, had been appointed “through a combination of down-the-line Stalinist political correctness” and has “the charisma of a caravan site on the Isle of Sheppey”. Even figures within government had it in for her, a Whitehall source calling her appointment “a complete disgrace” and comparing her to a “garden gnome”.

Now, though, at least in some quarters, her achievements are getting the recognition they deserve, the Telegraph’s David Blair writing today:

“Have no doubt: Ashton was a prime mover behind this deal. She was the chosen representative of the six countries in the “P5 plus 1” – that meant she spent more time negotiating with [Iranian foreign minister] Mohammad Javad Zarif than anyone else. When Ashton wasn’t dealing with him, she was briefing Kerry and the other foreign ministers…

“For a few hours, the most important role in world diplomacy fell into Ashton’s lap. Judging by the acclaim she received from her colleagues, she did not let it drop. This was her moment.”

For all the attacks, for all the insults, for all the scepticism, the deal with Iran shows Europe at its best, astride the world stage, working with our allies to bring about a better, safer world, freer of nuclear weapons, the threat of conflict lessened, brought about in part by a quiet, non-bombastic Briton of whom we should all be proud.

Published in Labourlist 26.11.13

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