Catherine Ashton says she is “always happy to help” Starmer’s Labour. Credit: Sarah Lee

Baroness Ashton: The people of Gaza must be given a better future

The former EU foreign policy chief and Labour life peer says Israel should start exploring solutions to the conflict
January 23, 2024

“Baroness Ashton as the EU’s Foreign Minister – is this the most ridiculous appointment in the history of the European Union?” That comment in the Daily Telegraph by Nile Gardiner, former aide to Margaret Thatcher, was typical of the media trashing Cathy Ashton had to suffer after her appointment in November 2009 to the newly created EU post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security. A year earlier, Prime Minister Gordon Brown had sent her to Brussels as the EU’s Trade Commissioner (the first woman to hold the position dedicated to trade), but she lacked foreign and security policy experience and so her nomination to the challenging new job was as much of a surprise to her as it was to the wider EU membership. It was an extraordinary challenge: a foreign policy novice in charge of a novice portfolio designed to test the EU’s ability to play a coherent and influential role in international affairs.

Four years later, after the conclusion of the interim nuclear arms agreement with Iran, where Ashton had played a decisive role, the Telegraph’s headline, “from ‘zero’ to hero” confirmed the hard-won respect she had achieved. By 2014, when her term as High Representative ended, her broad foreign affairs expertise and access to high level contacts were widely acknowledged. Brexit ended any possibility for her to use her familiarity with the EU’s institutions and knowledge of its member countries to act as “a resource that the EU could have called upon as part of its member states”. Now based in Britain she has established herself as a much sought-after foreign policy guru. She is chancellor of Warwick University and spends time in Washington where she has set up a Global Europe Programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center, which has also awarded her a distinguished fellowship. She has also just returned to the House of Lords as a working peer. But so far she has not taken up any full-time post.

Cathy Ashton is one of those rare high achievers whose work style is low-key, discreet and collegial, and who steers clear of self-promotion. But when we meet to talk about the Middle East and Ukraine, about Trump and Putin and about the perils of navigating an EU foreign policy, I am struck by her precision and her quiet self-assurance—and her unrelenting commitment to hard work. She had just returned from Thessaloníki where Kosovo and Serbia marked the 10th anniversary of the normalisation deal she had secured between these two adversaries. Describing it as a “trust-building event”, Ashton explains that despite her no longer having any official standing, the UN had invited her to examine enduring “problems arising from the unwillingness or inability to nail down what they have to do to fulfil the whole of the original agreement.”

In her time as the EU’s High Representative, there was no attempt to engage the EU in the Arab-Israel peace process

Ashton is discreet about her contacts in the Middle East. But there are hints that she is frequently meeting high-level actors and has a close-up knowledge of the Israel-Palestine conflict too. She tells me that in her EU role she visited Gaza several times and altogether visited the Middle East on more than 30 occasions—far more often than any other part of the world. She gives the impression that the region always draws her back. Yet in her time as the EU’s High Representative, there was no attempt to engage the EU in the Arab-Israel peace process. Her most active political intervention in the Middle East was in Egypt during the Arab Spring, when in the interest of democracy she tried but failed to end the detention of the deposed President Morsi.

The visits to Gaza were mainly prompted by the EU’s extensive aid and educational projects in the Strip. The visits to Israel and meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu primarily related to the nuclear arms negotiations with Iran. Ashton chooses her words very carefully: “He was a very, very determined person, whose particular focus with me was on the Iran negotiations. He wanted to make clear his position on Iran, which was negative. He was not at all confident that any agreement that we would reach would be sufficient for what he thought would be appropriate for the security of Israel.”

If she talked with Netanyahu now Ashton would certainly stress the urgency of starting talks to explore solutions and the ways and means towards a settlement. “I would start the conversation with the Arab neighbours and with the current [West Bank] leadership because you can never start too early”. She hastens to stress that “Hamas will have absolutely no role in this” but dismisses Israel’s contention that Hamas must be decisively defeated before future arrangements are considered. “You really do have to start thinking now about what comes next.” Experience has convinced her that “we don’t spend enough time on longer term solutions because we sort of believe that the problem will get better. But it never does. So you can never start too early.”

She is insistent that the people of Gaza must be given hope of a settled future. So many of them “are in deep grief and sadness. It’s really important that we both address and acknowledge all that, but also offer them a better future”. Otherwise, she warns, you “end up creating people who feel abandoned or feel there is nothing they can do to improve their lives.” The reconstruction of devastated Gaza will obviously be vital. Ashton believes the international community, including Europe will help; but that the bulk will have to come from regional powers in the Middle East. It has the resources; but needs “to feel that it’s putting those resources into something that has long-term prospects” for a settlement.

Ashton is convinced that a two-state solution is the only way forward, “with the Palestinian Authority somehow gaining enough strength to govern Gaza together with the West Bank. It’s a two-state solution; not a one-and-two-halves solution”. She adds that the Jewish settlements on the West Bank are illegal. Put brutally, the “settlers will have to be evicted and found places to live that are comfortable and fit within the plans that are ultimately worked out” for Israel and Palestine.

So who should sit at the table to work on a settlement? “The first thing you have to do is to identify people in Gaza who are not Hamas. There are plenty of community leaders in Gaza, who have been involved in trying to support the population. The UN have been in Gaza for a long time and they know the people to talk to.” The Palestinian Authority on the West Bank needs a lot of support, but also has to be at the table to provide “some level of Palestinian leadership and representation so that they become part of the solution rather than, as happens in other situations, simply becoming a pawn in everybody else’s game.”

For Ashton, the US and Europe will inevitably be involved in future talks, but the participation of Arab nations will be crucial. “I have long believed that the Arab nations in the region should be key players in trying to work out how best to provide stability and security not only for the Palestinians but also for Israel,” she says.

Hella Pick interviews Catherine Ashton, at home in London. Credit: Sarah Lee Hella Pick interviews Catherine Ashton, at home in London. Credit: Sarah Lee

Our conversation turns to Ukraine. She is a member of the Warsaw Security Forum, a high-level thinktank she describes as a complement to the Munich Security Forum. The Warsaw body allows Ashton to remain in close touch with key figures involved in the geopolitics of the conflict in Ukraine. She also mentions that she meets representatives from Ukraine in different places for different reasons “that I can’t talk about”. Instead, she harks back to her involvement with the country during her period as the EU’s High Representative. A crucial point came in 2013 with the collapse of the Association Agreement that Ukraine’s then president Viktor Yanukovych unexpectedly refused to sign. She says “it was a bruising time.” It had taken several years to negotiate the agreement with its focus on economic links, much of which had been technical and was handled by others in the EU Commission (Ashton says she was on the sidelines). In the wake of the collapse of the Association agreement, European governments were blamed for underestimating the broader political context and especially Russian threats.

“The crisis over the collapse of the association agreement was unexpected,” Ashton says. The Treaty had been initialled by all the parties, a preliminary indication that it had the support it required—and 30 European leaders had assembled in Lithuania’s capital to sign it. “When I arrived in Vilnius I had just finished the interim (nuclear) agreement with the Iranians and I was pretty tired. I was expecting to be a bit player on a set-piece occasion,” she says. Instead “Yanukovych walked over to me in the hotel lobby and said he could not sign the treaty.” It was clear that he had acted under Russian pressure, but Ashton still finds it hard to understand why the Ukrainian president had come to Vilnius. “Normally leaders who are not signing something stay at home.” Not long after the Vilnius debacle, the Maidan protest movement in Ukraine drove Yanukovych to exile in Russia. During her remaining time as High Representative, Ashton kept in close touch with the democracy movement in Ukraine.

The situation in today’s Ukraine War is not ripe for negotiation, Ashton judges. Like many others she worries about damage that a second Trump presidency might do. “Trump has consistently said that he would solve the Ukraine problem within 24 hours,” she says. The assumption is that Trump would call for a halt to the war and allow Russia to keep all it has gained. “Understandably there is great fear as to what Trump would do.” Unsurprisingly Ashton is also concerned about European unity and the strength of its commitment to support Ukraine. With the war entering its third year, concern that this will go on much longer “will start to erode the sense that we must stick with them,” she says. I ask about Ukraine’s ability to sustain both the will and have the means to defend itself. “I am sure people are exhausted. And there will be people who feel they can’t or won’t participate.” But of course, “there is no alternative to trying to do the best they can.” She is clear that it is illusory to think that if the fighting stops, there will be a good solution. “There isn’t one [a good solution] because Russia is intent on taking the country; and if Russia takes Ukraine, then Europe changes. So from a European perspective it’s really important to stick with them.”

Having sat round a table with Putin, does she have any insights on his design for Ukraine? “I think he is driven by history and legacy. He really wants to make Russia great again.” He sees Ukraine as an integral part of Russia and “cannot envisage that Ukraine looks in other directions politically or economically. That’s what drives him. And that’s what we will have to think about when we move forward, about finding a peaceful solution for Ukraine with somebody for whom the loss of Ukraine is unthinkable—except of course that he has lost it.”

When the long-lasting nuclear arms negotiations with Iran neared conclusion in 2015, as the 2016 presidential election campaigns were getting underway, Ashton, as a key member of the negotiating team, was thrust into a new level of public prominence. The Iran talks had given her considerable authority and flexibility as her mandate derived from the UN Security Council, which had delegated the chairmanship of the negotiation to the EU. Her high-level team, which included John Kerry, was fully aware of powerful opposition among US Republicans to any nuclear deal with Iran, but did not anticipate that Trump after his election would “set out to rip it up”. She emphasises that Iran met all its treaty obligations and changed policy only when it became clear the Trump administration was not implementing its undertakings to lift sanctions and ease economic relations with Iran. Ashton’s hopes were dashed that the treaty with Iran would be seen as a door opener to further negotiations to stabilise the region. “There is a lesson to learn from the Iran agreement that we keep having to relearn: just because you have done an agreement, that’s not over. You have got to look after it.” If a treaty’s provisions aren’t fully implemented, its purpose is void.

Our conversation has roamed around the world’s trouble spots. She is now completely at ease with foreign affairs. It has also reinforced my impression that Ashton’s collegial style was well suited to her EU role: she was fully convinced that any important EU foreign policy initiative required consensus of all EU member states—of 28 countries during her tenure—even if this was no easy task. “The High Representative’s ability to influence events comes from the fact that when you appear, you are not just speaking with one voice but with the 28 voices of the EU member states,” she says. 

Baroness Ashton: ‘one generation back on my father’s side there was deep poverty’ Baroness Ashton: ‘one generation back on my father’s side there was deep poverty’. Credit: Sarah Lee

Ashton has not forgotten the avalanche of criticism that hit her when she was appointed to the EU foreign affairs post. She readily acknowledges that she “was not prepared for the job. I had not anticipated the appointment.” Nor had she anticipated the ferocious media attacks. “It was very very hard. I had two choices: either I could say, ‘they must be right’ or, ‘I am going to stick it out and do the best I can’. I always knew that if I really felt I couldn’t do it I wouldn’t have stayed.” She stresses: “I am not that kind of person”.

She had significant support. From the beginning as High Representative, Ashton had Angela Merkel’s backing. “On the day I was appointed she said, ‘I will support you today and will support you every day’. And she did. She made a huge effort.” Hillary Clinton has been another source of strength. “She supported me from the beginning. We worked well together (on Kosovo/Serbia) and we spoke a lot.”

Ashton’s life appears to have been a constant learning process. Born in Upholland, near Wigan, she describes a modest origin: “My parents were relatively comfortable. But one generation back on my father’s side there was deep poverty”. She was the first member of her family to go to university and the anti-nuclear movement was part of her youth. She tells me that her marriage with the political columnist, Prospect writer and former YouGov president Peter Kellner has given her happiness and stability and strengthened her ability to pursue her own career.

She speaks proudly of her own achievements as a woman: Tony Blair gave her a life peerage and made her a junior minister first in education and later in justice; Gordon Brown made her Leader of the House of Lords before sending her to Brussels, first with the trade portfolio and then the EU foreign policy focus; during the Cameron government she was rewarded with the Order of St Michael and St George; Warwick University appointed her as its first woman chancellor. The latest source of pride is the King’s decision to give Baroness Ashton the highest honour he can personally bestow, making her a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter. She had first met him 40 years ago when she worked for “Business in the Community”, one of Prince Charles’s charities, and had “played a small role in working on some of his projects. I have kind of vaguely kept in touch ever since. But I was really surprised; I was speechless.”  

The Labour party has always been her natural political home, so with such experience behind her, and the prospect of a possible Labour victory in the next election, what lies ahead? She denies—with just a slight hint of hesitation—that she has any expectation of a post in a Keir Starmer government. “I am not looking for a role… I am always happy to help. But I don’t sit here thinking: Oh I must have a role.”