March 20, 2012
Update 15:02 – Two additional twists to this story. The Telegraph‘s Bruno Waterfield has just noted on Twitter that an ‘amended’ version of Ashton’s speech has now been published (see here). The controversial paragraph now reads, “When we see what is happening in Gaza and Sderot [an Israeli town less than one mile from Gaza] and in different parts of the world” – i.e. it explicitly mentions victims on the Israeli side of the Gaza strip. Amending a transcript would seem like a weird exercise had it not been for the fact that Ashton actually does make the reference to the two sides in the speech she delivered yesterday (available here, the reference is 12:30 in).
In other words, a full-scale diplomatic row has been triggered by what looks like a most unfortunate typo in a transcript...
EU foreign policy chief Baroness Catherine Ashton – or ‘High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission’, as her official title reads – has a difficult job. In fact, its up there with managing the English national football team in terms of ‘can’t win’ positions.
After having been on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from left, right and centre, not least a letter signed by twelve member states in December – including Germany, France, Italy and Poland – in which they expressed concerns over the functioning of the EU’s diplomatic service, the EEAS, Baroness Ashton has landed herself in some fresh controversy.
In a speech to a group of Palestinian youth in Brussels yesterday, she said,
“And the days when we remember young people who have been killed in all sorts of terrible circumstances – the Belgian children having lost their lives in a terrible tragedy and when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and in different parts of the world – we remember young people and children who lose their lives.”
This didn’t go down well with the Israeli government, with a number of ministers coming out to criticise Ashton for what they see as an inappropriate comparison and reference. Defence Minister Ehud Barak said, “I hope that the EU’s foreign minister will quickly realise the mistake she made and withdraw her comments.” Opposition leader Tzipi Livni added,”There is no similarity between an act of hatred or a leader killing members of his nation and a country fighting terror, even if civilians are harmed.”
Interior Minister Eli Yishai went even further and called for Ashton’s resignation:
“The statement by Lady Ashton further harms the ability of the European Union to be an honest broker [between Israel and the Palestinians…[Ashton] can no longer serve in her position.”
In a statement today, Ashton’s spokesperson sought to clarify the remarks:
We want to make this clear, because her words yesterday…were grossly distorted by one of the news agencies. In her remarks, [Ashton] referred to tragedies taking the lives of children around the world and drew no parallel whatsoever between the circumstances of the Toulouse attack and the situation in Gaza.
Judge for yourselves – Asthon’s full speech is available here, with the last paragraph being the key one for the discussion.
As we said, Ashton really does have a difficult job.