By Sebastian Moffett
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - For an insight into the world of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, consider the tale of a humble asterisk.
In late February, EU chief negotiator Robert Cooper was nearing a compromise that would bring Serbia and breakaway province Kosovo closer to EU membership and get around their disputes over Kosovo's right to exist.
The scheme would allow Kosovo to sign regional agreements, but only with an asterisk next to its name to indicate its lack of U.N. recognition. Without the asterisk Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo's independence, said it would refuse to co-manage their mutual border, the scene of violent clashes.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci objected to the symbol, seeing it as a slight to his fledgling country.
Cooper called Ashton, who had spent time over the past year getting to know both Thaci and then-Serbian leader Boris Tadic. She got on the phone to Thaci from London, where she was at a conference on aid for Somalia.
"If you go along," EU officials said she told him, "I will deliver the Council (representing the 27 EU member states)".
She did the same with Tadic.
The two men agreed to the deal, and two days later, so did the EU's leaders, as promised.
Though wrangling over the asterisk has reappeared, the dealmaking provides a glimpse into the low-key style of the diplomat who, after a rough first couple of years, continues to face criticism that she fails to provide leadership.
But some experts say Ashton's work behind the scenes can be an asset, such as in the Balkans, which is open to EU influence as it seeks membership in the group, and in nuclear talks with Iran, where the EU is seen as more neutral than the six powers.
Ashton is scheduled to lead the next round of negotiations on Wednesday between the six (Russia, the United States, China, France, Britain and Germany) and Iran over a nuclear programme the West believes is aimed at developing weapons.
"She supplies the emotional intelligence," said Cooper, the chief policy counselor at the European External Action Service. "She persuades them it's worth taking the risk. That's a vital ingredient to find solutions."
As the head of EEAS, set up in 2010 to develop a common foreign policy and build an EU foreign service, Ashton has one of the trickiest jobs in Europe. The foreign service has the potential to give Europe a bigger voice in the world, but has had to contend early on with a sovereign debt crisis that has made many Europeans wary of closer integration.
She drew instant suspicion when appointed. European parliament members complained that she wasn't elected. The French worried about her modest ability in their language. And multiple critics griped that she lacked experience or authority.
Stefan Lehne, an Austrian diplomat now working at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is typical of those who remain skeptical, saying the new service needs to do more than just react. Although Ashton may lead meetings of EU foreign ministers efficiently, he wrote in a recent report, "in terms of agenda setting and overall leadership of EU foreign policy, there are considerable deficits."
The EEAS is especially popular among smaller nations. Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said in March that he wanted it to do more common consular work for member states. Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal said the service was increasingly managing to put across a single message.
"Europe is more and more interested in talking with one voice," he said.
One motivation behind the project is the dramatic shift of world economic power towards Asia, and a growing focus by the continent's traditional minder, the United States, toward the Pacific. Alone, individual European states will struggle to influence global affairs, from military intervention to financial regulation.
"Scale will matter in the 21st century," says David O'Sullivan, the EEAS's Chief Operating Officer. "Individual western countries will struggle. If Europe is to be relevant in the 21st century, it will be so only as the EU."
Part of that job, Ashton told Reuters in a rare interview in November, is promoting "European values", though without the colonial-era enthusiasm for imposing these by force.
By that she means democracy, justice and women's rights, the last a subject she raises regularly, especially over the past year out of concern for what the Arab Spring means for women.
"I just can't bear it when you see people are not allowed to be what they can be - especially children," she said. "For human rights to apply to you, all you need is to be human and here."
Ashton knows a bit about fighting for the rights of the less-privileged. The daughter of a mining family in Lancashire, in northern England, she was the first in her family to attend university. She worked for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Employers' Forum on Disability, promoting disabled workers' rights, ran a county health authority and championed a bill banning forced marriages as the Leader of Britain's House of Lords.
Detractors put much of her success down to timing and luck. A rising and well-connected member of the Labour Party just as it came to power under Prime Minister Tony Blair, she had a track record and seemed fresh and energetic.
Her selection as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy came only after others, such as former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, turned it down.
Although she had experience in the EU, having been Trade Commissioner for a year, many felt she was not qualified for such high office. One reporter told her that being a woman had helped her appointment, to which she replied: "For most men, the fact that they're men has always played a part."
"She was made to feel very aware of her inexperience," says Paul Adamson, editor-in-chief of European affairs website E!Sharp and a friend. It has "made her resistant to pressure. She is very hands-on and always decides things herself."
WORK IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Among those in Brussels who have kind words for Ashton are two who rarely agree, the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Her first overseas trip as EU foreign policy chief was to Israel and the Palestinian territories, where the United States, Russia, the UN and the EU have been trying to negotiate a peace settlement. The EU is the biggest aid donor to the Palestinian Territories as well as Israel's largest trading partner, but it had been perceived as "a payer, not a player", Ashton said.
After the quartet talks stalled in July, her work was the impetus behind an accord in September committing both sides to reach an agreement by the end of 2012 at the very latest. The talks are going through difficulties, but diplomats for the two say they like the way the EU operates under the new service.
"The EU is playing a bigger role than before, as the U.S. has other priorities," said Hadi Shebli of the Palestinian delegation to the EU.
Yoel Mester, deputy head of Israel's mission to Brussels, says it helps having a single desk for his country at the EU, rather than dealing separately with the Commission, the EU's executive and the Council, which represents EU governments.
Both the new diplomatic service and Ashton have had teething problems, say people who have worked there. Staff were scattered between eight buildings and only this year started to move into a new headquarters. COO O'Sullivan says it will take three years for the service to operate effectively.
The Arab Spring exposed the weaknesses in the EU's diplomatic ambitions, as individual states' historical and regional concerns hampered consensus.
Policy finally gelled over its post-conflict role focused on development. In May, Ashton announced a revised European Neighbourhood Policy, under which future aid would be linked to progress in areas such as press freedom and fair elections. The EU says it is now the biggest donor of humanitarian aid to Libya.
The experience could be a model for the future, said Stephan Keukeleire, a professor of international relations at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and at the College of Europe, both in Belgium. Without a significant military force of its own, the EU will leave regional fire-fighting to member states, and focus on aid and rebuilding programmes.
Having never run for elected office, Ashton does not have the showmanship of the campaigning politician or an eagerness for the limelight. Some say that's why the region's leaders gave her the job, so that attention would not be diverted away from them.
Ashton does not answer questions on these issues; a person familiar with her thinking said she does not like talking about herself and doesn't want to personalize her role. Instead, she emphasizes she is happy with the progress "the service" is making, the person said.
"She knows perfectly well that the Hi Rep cannot go further than the big elephants who run foreign policy in London, Paris, Berlin," Denis MacShane, a British former Europe minister and friend of Ashton's, wrote in an email.
"She has dealt with people like that all her political life and rather than confront big political egos she will seek other ways."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)