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Participation in EU Commission meetings: A measure of Ashton’s lack of influence?

Catherine Ashton is well known as one of the hardest working people in Brussels.
James Morrison, Head of Cabinet of Catherine Ashton

I had a good laugh when I read this quote in a blog post of the EU Commission Representation in the UK today.

I was laughing because, when you are in Brussels, a lot of people complain about the way EU “foreign minister” Ashton works and this description thus almost sounds like sarcasm from her head of cabinet. The quote is also strangely funny given the fact that there are probably a lot of officials working hard in and around the EU institutions (although some might object to this assumption…), and maybe even harder than Ms Ashton.

The blog post itself was a reaction to this Telegraph article by Bruno Waterfield, journalist and EUobserver blogger, in which Bruno criticises Catherine Ashton for her lack of attendance of Commission meetings.

But while Bruno finds that having missed 17 out of 42 Commission meetings (participation rate of 60%) over the last year is too much, Ashton’s head of cabinet, Morrison, argues that

“an attendance record of more than 60% at Commission meetings is astonishing given that Catherine Ashton has done the jobs previously done by three people“.

claiming also that

Her attendance record is comparable to some current and former colleagues

Especially this latter quote found my interest and so I took a look at the Commission website and the page with the Commission’s meeting protocols for 2010 in order to see how Ashton’s participation rate was in comparison to others.

[Update on 10 Jan: After this article has been written, the list of protocols has been completed and was brought into order. Thanks at the responsible webmaster for being so responsive!]
The first thing that you notice on the meeting protocol page is that a) the list of documents is not well-ordered, and b) that not all meetings are actually linked. Luckily, the links to the protocols are regular, so you can jump from meeting to meeting to meeting, just by changing the link. Simply take “” and add 1 to the number in bold for the next meeting (the last one for 2010 is 1940).

So I went through all the protocols of the Barroso II Commission in 2010 (36 in total, starting with the meeting on 17 February 2010) and coded the participation of the Commissioners in an Excel file which I have uploaded to Google Fusiontables (follow the link; please check against possible mistakes).

In the table, 1 stands for participation in all agenda items, 0.5 for partial participation (which can be 1 agenda item up to all but 1), and 0 for absence. At the bottom I’ve done the calculations for participation in each meeting and on the right for each Commissioner. For the 1st sum, I’ve simply added up the numbers. For the 2nd sum I have only counted participation in the full meeting. For the 3rd sum I’ve counted both complete and partial participation as full participation.

The results are as follows:

If you count the amount of times she has been present at least for a part of the agenda of the Commission meetings of the Barroso II Commission in 2010 (sum 3), you arrive at 21 meetings (i.e. 58% of the 36), a figure confirming Bruno Waterfield’s calculations. On this measure, Ashton ranks last among all Commissioners, with Commissioner Piebalgs being just ahead with 22 meetings. The next one is Commissioner de Gucht with 27 meetings while Barroso and Ciolos each just have missed one single of the 36 meetings.

This gap kind of confirms the argument of Ashton’s head of cabinet that absence from Commission meetings may be explained by international duties, given that Piebalgs deals with the development portfolio while de Gucht is dealing with trade, both rather external policy fields with development being even more clearly directed to the external dimension (similar to Ashton).

Yet, it is also interesting to look at another measure, that is meetings in which Ashton has followed the full agenda (sum 2). Here, she only arrives at the penultimate rank that she shares with Commissioner Oettinger, both having only 12 full Commission meetings (33%) on their accounts for 2010 (Barroso II). Behind them is only de Gucht who doesn’t appear to be a huge fan of Commission meetings or who must be incredibly busy, seeing his amount of non- or short-time appearances. On the measure of full Commission meetings, the list is led by Ciolos (Agriculture), Damanaki (Fisheries) and Dalli (Health and Consumers).

Taking into account these figures, on may ask whether the following statement by Ashton’s head of cabinet is really true:

Even when Catherine Ashton is not able to attend the European Commission’s weekly meeting, the process in Brussels ensures that her voice is heard and that her views are fully reflected in Commission decisions“.

Given that it took her until recently to build up the EEAS team, I doubt that with her limited amount of involvement into the core Commission work (represented through her participation record) she really was having her voice heard at the strength her head of cab is trying to make us think.

I’m fully aware that there are many possibilities to exert influence and that sitting around in meetings may not always be the activity that makes you influential, but I wouldn’t go as far as fully dismissing Bruno Waterfield’s criticism.

It may be true that less participation in meetings is not a measure of how much a person works. Nevertheless, taken together with other information we’ve heard on her first year in office (e.g. the fact that she’s been missing other important meetings, too), it doesn’t appear to be unrealistic to deduce conclusions on Ashton’s standings within the EU Commission and within the balance of powers of the EU institutions by looking at the amount of time that she has spent in (full) Commission meetings during the last year.

What do you think?

[Update on 10 Jan] Bruno Waterfield has followed up on his Telegraph article with a longer blog post that also references this post.

11 Responses to Participation in EU Commission meetings: A measure of Ashton’s lack of influence?

  1. Excellent piece of research, Ron. Bruno should cross-check Hillary Clinton’s level of participation in US Cabinet meetings.

  2. avatar Bruno says:

    Jeepers Ronny, as quickly as I post a blog you link to it. Your posting is far superior to original article, thank you

  3. avatar HB says:

    What I would like to know and would encourage one of you to look at is how her attendance compares to former Commissioners for External Relations, Ferrero Waldner or Patten, for example? I think that would be the best way to compare like with like, while bearing in mind that the role is now ‘double’ or some would argue, ‘triple’ hatted.

  4. avatar Ronny Patz says:


    Reasonable point. If I count correctly, Ferrero-Waldner missed 18 out of 43 meetings in 2009 (participation rate: 58%), and from the remaining 25 she did not attend 9 for the the full time (participation rate for full meetings: 37%). These figures pretty much compare with Ashtons (as I have made clear with the comparison to Piebalgs, the point that there are external duties seems to be explaining it well).

    However, given that Ashton is formally a Vice-President of the Commission (which Ferrero-Waldner wasn’t) it is clear that she may not be as central/influential in the Commission’s work as her title may imply.

    In particular if you also use the contextual information on Ashton that you could read in the past year, I still think that the participation rate may still be a pretty good measure of her direct influence within the Commission. But maybe I’m wrong.

  5. avatar Victor says:

    It would be great if we could evaluate High Representative/Vicepresident (HR/VP) Catherine Ashton´s record on a thorough qualitative as well as quantitative basis.

    As it has been rightly pointed out indirectly, Ashton is not double-hatted but actually has 6 hats:

    1. High Representative for Foreign Affairs (ambassadorial/representative duties);

    2. Vicepresident of the Commission (administrative/coordinating duties);

    3. President of the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Development Ministers configurations in the EU Council (consensus building);

    4. Participant of the European Council (right of initiative);

    5. Member of the Commission for the United Kingdom (national advocacy);

    6. Head of the new European External Action Service -EEAS- (operational duties).

    She is also nominal Head of the European Defense Agency and president of its steering board.

    One of her main duties has been the setting up of the as yet unoperational EEAS. On this one at least it could have been more clearly acknowledged her ability to mediate between Parliament, Commission and Council.

    She has also only in the last few months been able to make appointments to the dozens of positions which would make her life easier.

    One can point to Ashton´s attendance record at the Commission, but there are other comparisons and facts that should be published simultaneously so we can all judge with appropriate perspective whether she is basically a slack as she is definitively being accused of without using the word as much.

    It would be good to know:

    A) how her attendance record truly compares to former Commissioners for Foreign Affairs;

    B) what her attendance record was like as Commissioner for Trade;

    C) how her attendance record in the EU Council of Ministers and the European Council of Heads of State and Government compares to that of former Commissioners and to former High Representative Solana´s;

    D) any specifics examples of how she has failed to defend the UK´s interests in the Commission;

    E) any specific examples of meetings or summits she has missed because she wanted to be in London or take the weekend or evening off.

    Use can be made of her record of Agendas, which is also public:

    The fact that she was lucky that Mandelson resigned from the Commission and that Blair was running to be chosen President of the European Council while Merkel was running from it, all of which turned out to favor Ashton´s appointment was not of her making and she shouldn’t be faulted or judged based on it.

    If she is as bad as the accusations from all the (only right wing) politicians quoted suggest she should be kicked out immediately. (For the record, the procedure is in Article 18(1) of the Treaty on European Union: 1. The European Council, acting by a qualified majority, with the agreement of the President of the Commission, shall appoint the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The European Council may end his term of office by the same procedure.)

    For the year or so she has been in the position I have read about criticism of her lack of attendance at this or the other meeting or event. But it always turns out she was attending another meeting or event.

    Some have criticized her priorities. But that is a matter of opinions and not facts.

    It is completely different to accuse someone of having poor judgment than to say someone doesn’t deserve their pay (basically stealing) because they don’t even try to do what they were hired to do.

  6. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    Hi Victor,

    I agree with most of what you said.

    And, different to Bruno in his article, I haven’t complained anywhere about the fact that she is not doing enough, that she gets too much money or does not represent anyone’s interest well enough. I don’t mind (and I don’t agree with Bruno on that), not least because I’m aware that the Brussels environment is a mine field and there were many forces right from the beginning who wanted her to fail.

    But what I have been doing here was to looking at a possible measure of her influence in the current Commission (and just in the Commission) by getting out some comparative data on participation of all Commissioners in the current Commission during 2010. And it remains clear that on two different measures of participation she ranks last or penultimate. One can draw conclusions from that without looking at any past Commissions, because the question is how much influence she has now, in her current role. And so I feel that to consider that she was not having a whole lot of influence in the Commission over the last year – in particular given all the other duties that you mention rightly – may still be a valid assumption.

    To give a full judgement on her work, it would indeed need the full research program which you propose. If I get the funds to do that, I’d be more than glad to do it… 😉

  7. avatar Victor says:

    Actually participation in Commission college meetings is, counterintuitive, probably a sign that you don’t have that much influence in the institution.

    The only Commissioner who’ve I seen criticized for lack of participation in Commission meetings has been the (German) Energy Commissioner. He was criticized for not being able to convince the institution in the first place and for being absent in the meeting where Coal State Aids were discussed (to top it all).

    As is well known, almost all Commission meetings do not involve substantive deliberations leading to votes or anything of the like. That is why attendance records which would probably be inappropriate in a Council of Ministers or a Parliament are acceptable in the Commission college.

    Influence should be measured by outcomes, not inputs. In other words, would it be better to have a Commissioner with a perfect attendance record whose position is continuously disregarded, or a Commissioner who never attends meetings but whose will is always adhered to?

    While on the subject…there are not that many Foreign Affairs Council meetings (about once a month) and even fewer European Council meetings (about once a quarter), so it shouldn’t be that difficult too find out (the minutes of the meetings are public) her attendance records. (That I know of, she has only failed to attend one informal Defense ministers´ meeting, but I could be wrong.)

  8. avatar Babilon says:

    Now, you can view the Ms. Ashton’s agenda on the EEAS’s website. What about the fact that there are no open vacancies for Europeans in the EEAS? Maybe we would find in the next future vacancies for the cleaning ladies and the chauffeur. It is understandable. Ashton was appointed by national elite. Staff is coming from national system. What about all these Europeans “belonging” to Europe with no national diplomatic system? Those who instead of staying “stand still” to get their promotion in their home country, choose to travel and work around Europe? Those who really understand the fears of “ordinary” Europeans. Ashton and Van Rompuy and Barrosso’ Europe is not our Europe; this is the Europe of political empty spaces.

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