Interview with Lady Catherine Ashton

Lady Catherine Ashton, a British labour politician, served as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union from 2009-2014. She also served as First Vice President of the European Commission. Before her tenure in Brussels, she held various positions in the British government. Lady Ashton is currently the Chancellor of the University of Warwick. PPR spoke to her about Brexit, Europe’s response to terrorism, and future challenges for the EU.

Conducted and transcribed by Isabella Fierro and Michaela Palmer

Penn Political Review: What are your thoughts on Brexit? How will it affect Britain and how will it affect the European Union?

Catherine Ashton: You have to look at why people voted for leaving the European Union and I think there are sort of three big reasons. The first is for some people the idea of pooling sovereignty or giving up anything that could be yours as a nation state is something they don’t like at all. There are people for whom it’s about taking back control. Secondly, there are people who feel that especially with freedom of movement of workers – that anyone can come from any European Union country and live and work – that wages have stagnated or they’ve lost opportunities. They felt very strongly that that was the wrong policy and that directly flows from being part of the European Union. And the third probably was about money. Because in the campaign a lot was made of the amount of money we pay to the European Union; much less was made about the amount of money that comes back. Or the benefits that you kind of buy with the money that you get, not least access to a huge single market where you could sell your goods and services openly and freely. But those three reasons I think were the underpinning and we weren’t able to combat those reasons in people’s minds. The question now will be what kind of Brexit will we see.

PPR: How do you think Theresa May has been as Prime Minister? Do you disagree with any of her decisions?

CA: I think Theresa May has found herself Prime Minister in perhaps quite challenging circumstances. She was a “remainer,” not a “Brexiteer.” But she has pledged to implement the results of the referendum and I think probably feels quite a lot of pressure to do that, and to do it in a very sort of clean way, from her own party. The difficulty is that it’s very complicated to achieve and I think one of the big issues when you look at her premiership right now is how she is going to manage the challenges coming from Scotland for a second referendum and the fears of Northern Ireland about the Good Friday Agreement, which is based on the fact the European Union exists and the ability to move so easily across the border between Ireland and the north of Ireland. So from my perspective, I think these challenges are enormous and we’ve yet really to see how they’re going to play out and how she’s going to try and address them in ways that are going to keep the UK together if that’s what happens, and ways that are going to give the best deal for Britain.

PPR: What are your thoughts regarding the EU’s relationship with Russia and do you have any concerns regarding the relationship or thoughts on how it’ll change?

CA: Russia is a huge neighbor to the European Union and we are very conscious of the way that Russia acts in its relationships with both individual countries and with the EU as a whole. So I think our concerns would be that Russia and its actions in Ukraine, the taking of Crimea and the role it’s played in the east of Ukraine, are not conducive to the kind of relationship we would want to see Russia have with its neighbors, nor indeed conducive to the proper activities that should take place, especially in thinking about international law. I think the EU is always trying to find a way to develop a good and positive relationship with Russia, but equally to stand up for things that matter and Russia’s interventions, especially with Ukraine have been very challenging for the EU.

PPR: A lot of people have been quick to compare Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and relate them to the rise of nationalism across the world. Do you agree that these events might be related in this context?

CA: I certainly think that there is a move for simple sort of slogans to replace what are often quite complicated debates and arguments. And certainly in Europe you’ve seen the rise of more populist movements, which have played on both the notion that you can get a simple answer to a difficult question and on people’s concerns and worries which are genuine about their own future and the future for their families. Whether we are going to see more of that in Europe, I don’t know. The results in the Netherlands suggest that perhaps one of the consequences of Brexit is that other countries are beginning to think harder about which direction to travel and in some European countries there may a sort of populism, but it doesn’t go hand in hand with a desire to leave the European Union. I don’t think you can ever really compare what goes on. You can find some common threads but what happens in different countries is based often on a whole set of things that have been going on for years. So, for elections in the US, you’d have to look at what the key issues were that people felt were really important and undoubtedly you’ll find lots of economic issues. People feeling that they’ve been left behind, that life has not gotten better for them and feeling that perhaps people who’d always done well were still continuing to do well and weren’t, in a sense, representing their interests. You get lots of different reasons but they often come down to economics, to the capacity of political parties or politicians to explain things. Not because people can’t understand them, but because if you’re not steeped in the day to day of issues, then why would you know all the detail? And that means you’re susceptible to people giving you quite simple solutions. So, explaining better what’s going on, and getting people to participate more fully rather than feeling that things are done to them.

PPR: Do you think either event – Brexit or the election of Donald Trump – which make it look like the two countries are turning inward, will leave room for other countries to rise up on the world stage? Or do you think the influence of the two states will stay the same?

CA: I think it depends on how you define “looking inward.” What’s interesting about the post-Brexit Britain is that everybody’s talking about doing more trade and being more global. So “global Britain” has become the mantra. And that’s partly because we’re a small island so we’ve always had to look outwards and do. I think it’s more a redefinition of outward facing. It’s saying, “we’re no longer part of this block,” which for some people was defined as preventing Britain from operating in the way it might and so there’s a sense of freedom, and translating that into “therefore we can have bigger and stronger relationships with everybody.” The reality is the biggest and strongest relationship you need is with the 27 countries you just left. But they want to also look outward and that’s positive. Whereas I think in the US, one of the elements of the election was about whether that outward facing US had found itself both politically and economically vulnerable… jobs leaving and going to other countries, trade deals that didn’t deliver and so on. It was this sort of mantra as part of the election campaign. I can understand why you might get a more inward focus for an election than you would perhaps in Britain. There are sort of echoes that we hear. The reality is trade is a good thing.

PPR: You mentioned the election in the Netherlands. Do you think that election is indicative of how other elections in Europe will turn out for the rest of the year? How do you view the rise of far right political movements?

CA: I’ve given up making predictions because I can be quite wrong…. We won’t know until it happens. We have the French elections, we have the German elections, and undoubtedly there will be a lot of people who are voting in what you might call populism. It’s unlikely, I think, to be able to end up taking the countries. Certainly not in Germany, and in France I think you could be close but I don’t think it will happen, though it could. But you still have to deal with the underlying fact that in countries across Europe there is a growing view, a large number of people who feel drawn to that sort of populist approach and I think we have to unpack the reasons for that and deal with them.

PPR: How do you respond to critics who say that the EU limits individual states’ sovereignty?

CA: When you join an organization you invest in that organization things that you want to do. So if you join a trade union, you give the trade union the right to speak on your behalf. If you join a political club, you invest in that, the right to say you are a member. If you join, you know, a choir, you put your voice into the mix. And it’s the same thing, if you join something you’re doing it because you see advantages for you in giving a bit of your self, in this case sovereignty, in order that it can operate more effectively. The classic example is trade deals. The British, along with all the other countries, invested in trade deals by saying that, having agreed on the outline of the deal, the European Union could negotiate it. I was the negotiator for a trade deal and of course I reported back to the 28 countries but I did have the power to do the deal and to negotiate aspects of the deal and come back them when I initialed it. That meant that it was a better deal because you weren’t trying to do a deal with 28 different countries individually. I was speaking on behalf of half a billion people and therefore able to get a better offer from the other side. That is pooling sovereignty. Now I think that is a very good example of the positive side of pooling sovereignty. Second and final point I’ll make is that you don’t pool it unless you want to. Nobody takes it off of you. You know anything the British signed up to do, they debated in Parliament. They had the right not to. They chose to do it. There is a sort of fantasy, I think, that somehow we have given up things that we really would prefer not to. But for some people just the concept of pooling anything doesn’t work and that’s a view they’re entitled to have, of course. And if you have that view then you don’t join the club, you don’t join the choir.

PPR: In what ways do EU countries work together to combat terrorism and in what ways could they improve?

CA: That’s difficult because I’m not there now. A lot of work that’s gone on since, for example, the events of Paris, I’m not party to. But certainly, not just in the EU, but across the world, there have been lots of efforts made to coordinate and collaborate. It’s a combination of things, from intelligence, which is so vital to trying to head off and prevent attacks, to political and economic support in areas that have been affected, to thinking again, for example, on cybersecurity, about what measures you can take to try to resolve it. So it’s that sort of collaboration. The thing about a lot of the ways in which our security is challenged is, they don’t know borders in the same way and you need to be able to work together in a much bigger sense, especially in areas like cyber which could be coming from anywhere and can do amazing, alarming damage, as well as of course terrible events where people have lost their lives.

PPR: The New York Times cited the idea that the EU’s agreement to establish a headquarters for military training could create a rival for NATO. Do you share this idea or see it more as an opportunity for cooperation with NATO?

CA: When I was High Representative – and I’m sure my successor is the same – I met with the Secretary General of NATO every month. Nothing we did was in any way, shape, or form designed to get in the way of NATO, but to complement it. I’ll give you one example. We spent 200 billion euros a year in Europe on defense. I believe it could be spent more efficiently. We could, for example, stop the very small variations in the purchase of one particular kind of helicopter or aircraft, and instead buy the same one, thus reducing the price and getting better economies of scale. Equally, research on issues like improvised explosive devices were done in the European Union through the European Defense Agency, and that research helped to identify who was planting them, helped to find out where they are and helped to deal with making sure the vehicles and so on were well-armored to prevent them causing great damage. All of that research, done between the 28 countries, was then available to NATO and to others as well. So, it’s not either/or with NATO and the EU, it’s both/and. There are occasions when it’s important to have an EU military mission with an EU flag rather than a NATO flag. Because the issues are different, the areas of operation are different and of course the memberships are different. But they are very complementary, they’re in the same city, and they work very closely together, but it’s not and it should not be about any sort of usurping of the role, but rather adding on. Final example – in the Libya campaign, we did a lot of training of midair refueling for countries who were involved. In Europe, because countries are quite small, they can get up and down, they don’t need to refuel very often. So we did all that training, and NATO didn’t have to. It’s a complementary effort.

PPR: How do you view Britain’s relationship with China and do you anticipate any changes in the coming years?

CA: I think the British have been very receptive to elements of Chinese investment and in a European context, Britain has been more open to Chinese engagement than many. Certainly, as we leave the European Union, Britain will have to develop its own strong bilateral relationship with China. It has a strong one anyway but it will be different. And whereas there are negotiations going on between the EU and China on an investment package, Britain won’t be part of that so it will have to decide what it is going to do. I imagine they will get stronger, I imagine we will welcome elements of Chinese investment, but as with many nations that comes with a sort of health warning that for many people it makes them nervous. And it doesn’t mean that China will simply be allowed to invest anywhere and everywhere, and it will still go alongside concerns that China may be dumping on the market, which has been a concern about the steel industry. That will continue to be watched. China will say it isn’t dumping on the market and I’m not saying it is or it isn’t, but those issues will continue to be part of the thinking in Britain as it looks at its relationship with China.

PPR: What could the US and Europe and their allies be doing to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Syria?

CA: There are more refugees now than there have been since World War II, so it’s not just Syria. But the humanitarian issues that we face now are enormous. Whatever we do, we’re going to need to do more of it. First of all, for Syria it’s about trying to stop the war, because if you stop the war, you in a sense start to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. That’s very complicated and very difficult, otherwise it would have been done by now. But efforts need to continue and develop to try and get that to happen, whether it’s one big ceasefire or a series of smaller ceasefires. That’s got to be the goal. The second is that having achieved that, it’s then about trying to rebuild a country so that people can go home. Most refugees in the world don’t want to be refugees; they want to go home. Some will never go home in some parts of the world because there’s nothing to go home to. But I hope that for many Syrian refugees the opportunity to go home will come. And I think thirdly, it’s about trying to think in a global sense about how we deal with the challenge of refugees. Individual nations find it very difficult to cope with large numbers of refugees. Especially if they’re not economically strong and especially if they don’t have a history of knowing how to manage and support refugees very well. So they do need the role of the UN, they do need the role of international organizations that can help them. The countries around Syria like Jordan and Turkey have had millions of people coming in, which they’ve managed very well but it’s still been incredibly challenging, just in term of water and food supplies which in some countries are not so easily available. I’s a global effort and it needs to carry on.

This interview has been condensed and contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.