Catherine Ashton’s decision to defer a visit to Haiti has put her on the defensive against critics. But José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero put best foot forward for the European Union, in a speech to MEPs in Strasbourg presenting his country’s programme as EU presiding nation for the next six months.
The Spanish Prime Minister said: “We have attempted to give a response to the tragedy in Haiti. I am deeply convinced that the response of the international community is strong and shows solidarity and that the EU will meet expectations in the circumstances.”
The biggest group in the Parliament — the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) — and the Greens, had complained that the European Union’s designated foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton of the centre-left missed an opportunity to show Europe’s face as a major international player.
The EPP’s Íñigo Méndez de Vigo said: “I would have liked to see the European blue flag with the 12 stars, and Lady Ashton ahead of it. I believe the sense of opportunity in politics is very important and I’m afraid that, unfortunately, it didn’t happen this time. That’s the way we conservatives feel it.”
Ashton spent her weekend in London, working on Haiti, her office said, respecting UN advice not to travel to the earthquake zone immediately, while her American counterpart, Hillary Clinton, did go, and an EU commissioner will go this week.
The Greens’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit also lamented the EU member states’ not having moved ahead with a 2006 proposal for a common civil protection unit.
“That,” Cohn-Bendit said, “would have put us in Haiti immediately. The member states are holding this back, and I believe we must take up this debate again.”
The EU claims the number one position as giver of aid to the world’s poor countries. Ashton’s job is partly to make that more visible. The bloc has offered more than €400m to Haiti in humanitarian aid and longer-term assistance.