Referendums are inefficient forms of democracy, according to Former High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs the Right Honourable Baroness Catherine Ashton of Upholland during a discussion at the Mortara Center on Friday.
The talk, co-hosted by the BMW Center for German and European Studies and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security was moderated by GIWPS Executive Director Melanne Verveer.
Ashton said although democracy is important, referenda may not be the best vehicle to communicate popular opinion. Referenda prevent politicians from offering citizens detailed answers to complex problems, according to Ashton.
“Democracy is very important, but the instruments of democracy should be used wisely and well. I’m not of the view that a referendum is always the best way of showing democracy,” Ashton said. “Straightforward yes-and-no questions lead to slogan solutions rather than in-depth propositions.”
Ashton said there is a possibility for constructive relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union after the United Kingdom formally leaves the EU following its June 23 vote.
“The UK has just voted to leave the European Union, it hasn’t voted to leave the world.” Ashton said. “What is important is not looking at it as disintegration, but looking at it as a new way of working together.”
Ashton, who held the position of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy from 2009-2014 – comparable to that of EU foreign minister – said some of reconciling the views of 28 individual member nations into one cohesive foreign policy approach, while still preserving the autonomy of those member states, was a constant challenge.
“You have to recognize that individual nations, when they have aid budgets and foreign ministries, have to prove the worth of those,” Ashton said.
Ashton, who was the first female European Union trade commissioner from 2008 to 2009, said women face significant challenges in politics.
“There is no road map for women. You’re on your own, so tread your own path, and do it with pride,” Ashton said. “Make sure to put the ladder down behind you.”
Ashton served as a chief negotiator in both the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo and the P5 + 1 talks, which included China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany and led to the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2013.
Ashton emphasized three core tenets of negotiation as indispensable guidelines when approaching a global challenge: collaboration, the ability to think comprehensively and the importance of thinking long-term.
“You can’t understand one aspect of a crisis without understanding all of the interwoven underpinnings of what’s going on,” Ashton said. “We have to understand that processes take time, and be prepared to invest in that.”
In an interview with The Hoya following the event, Verveer said Ashton’s insights will help students find solutions to world problems as future leaders.
“I think the breadth of her experience, ranging from negotiating the agreement between the Serbs and the Kosovars, to the Iran talks, to her work in so many other trouble spots… what this represents for our students is the chance to sit with someone who has this wealth of experience and to learn lessons that can help us move forward into all the difficult, intractable challenges of tomorrow,” Verveer said.
SFS Events Manager Phoebe Koenigsberg said she welcomed the advice offered by Ashton to women seeking to forge careers in male-dominated industries and institutions.
“As a woman used to being the first at everything that she’s accomplished and done, who didn’t have an example to follow and who had to blaze her own trail – I found that perspective very interesting,” Koenigsberg said.