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Would you recognise the new President of Serbia if you bumped into him in the corridor at work? Thought not. Nor, though, did Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, when she met him in Brussels recently. As the Daily Telegraph reports, the Baroness realised moments before an official photocall with Tomislav Nikolic, the newly inaugurated Serb leader, that she had no idea who it was in the visiting Serb delegation that she had to congratulate. Nor, as the footage of the incident shows, did any of her retinue of officials: when an increasingly desperate Lady Ashton asks them: “who knows what he looks like?”, she draws blanks all around, and the day is only saved by a junior aide who happens to have a photo of Mr Nikolic handy.
True, as anyone who shakes hands a lot for a living can testify, this is an occupational hazard. And as awkward official encounters go, simply not recognising someone is at the lower end of the embarrassment spectrum. Out in the Middle East once – I won’t be too specific – I remember watching a short-haired and rather burly-looking lady diplomat have a long conversation with a local election official. It all went wonderfully, except at the end, when he said: “A pleasure to meet you, Sir”.
But what makes the Ashton incident truly entertaining is the fly-on-the wall way in which it is captured on camera, which does indeed resemble an episode from the TV political satire The Thick of It. The bit where the Baroness, having finally been shown Mr Nikolic’s photo, then greets him like an old pal, could have come straight from Armando Iannucci’s pen. Indeed, it does make me wonder whether he might have been better choosing Brussels rather than Washington as the target for his new political satire “Veep”, which focuses on life in the office of a fictional US vice-president. Much of Veep’s laughs, apparently, come from the inherent contradictions of the Vice-Presidential position itself: while technically, he or she is the second most powerful person on the planet, in reality, they are only really needed is if No 1 is dead or absent, and spend much of the rest of the time struggling to find things to do (hence, in Veep’s case, the female holder of the post is constantly her staff whether the President has rung for her: the answer is always “no”.)
Yet if the office of Vice President is ripe for lampooning, it is arguably nothing compared to the Office of High Representative, where even the basic premise is perfect Iannucci territory: a previously unknown apparatchik is plucked from political obscurity to become Europe’s most powerful woman overnight, only to find that nobody can really agree on what her role is. You could pen an entire a Brussels-based Dans Le Thick of It using little more than a few newspaper cuttings.
Episode One, for example, could focus on the various smear campaigns directed against the “High Rep” by elected politicians jealous at her power, starring, perhaps, the French and German versions of Malcolm Tucker. Episode Two could feature rows among her entourage of junior diplomats as to who gets the best offices in their new HQ, and introduce the EU President, Herman Van Rompuy, penning obscure haikus.
And episode three, perhaps, could look at her role in the current nuclear talks with the Iranians, whose domestic press seem to judge the success of the talks partly on whether the Baroness is modestly dressed or not (mostly not, if the way they touch her photos up is anything to go by) Indeed, at some of the nuclear negotiations earlier this year, the Baroness took to wearing a scarf that hid her neck entirely, which perhaps explains why the talks were rather more positive than those last year, where she didn’t. Given the Baroness’s left-wing, feminist credentials, I would imagine she might baulk at dressing in any particular way just to please the Iranians. But given what’s at stake in the talks, it’s easy to imagine what kind of a row might provoke with a Brussels version of Malcolm Tucker: “Right, love, listen up. Wear the scarf and we might just get peace in the Middle East. Wear that blouse that shows your collarbone and it’ll be World War III. Your f***ing call.”