New EU foreign policy chief rejects ‘Cathy Who?’ label

22nd November 2009, Comments 0 comments

Ashton was the surprise choice as Europe's 27 leaders shunned better-known names and plumped for her to be the bloc's top diplomat, alongside low-profile Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the continent's first president.

London -- Newly-appointed EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, little known even in her native Britain, rejected claims Friday she lacks the experience to be the face of Europe abroad.

Ashton was the surprise choice as Europe's 27 leaders shunned better-known names and plumped for her to be the bloc's top diplomat, alongside low-profile Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as the continent's first president.

Just a decade ago, Ashton was running a regional health authority in England -- now, as EU High Representative for foreign affairs, she will be responsible for thousands of EU staff worldwide.

She has been an EU commissioner for just over a year after inheriting the trade portfolio from Peter Mandelson when he turned his back on Brussels to return to a cabinet post in the British government.

Ashton, 53, insisted she would prove the doubters wrong when she starts her new job on December 1.

"Over the next few months and years I aim to show that I am the best person for the job," she told BBC radio.

"I think for quite a few people they would say that I am the best person for the job and I was chosen because I am, but I absolutely recognise there are a number of candidates around, all of whom would have been extremely good and extremely able.

"I hope that my particular set of skills will show that in the end I am the best choice."

The softly-spoken Ashton pointed out that she had already taken the lead for the EU in high-level trade talks with China.

And she said it was "not the case at all" that she was unknown to her counterparts in Asia and the United States -- indeed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already described her as "my new counterpart."

Ashton, who is married to one of Britain's leading pollsters Peter Kellner, has low recognition in Britain because she has never been elected to office.

Before going to Brussels, she was an unelected minister for the ruling Labour party in the House of Lords, the upper house of parliament, eventually rising to leader of the House, a job that requires deft management skills.

In justifying her appointment, French President Nicolas Sarkozy underlined that experience -- and said she ticked all the boxes.

"She played an essential role in the House of Lords to get the Lisbon Treaty through... she supported it throughout.

"She has a great deal of experience and she also had the advantage of being a socialist, English and a woman," he told journalists in Brussels.

In the political horse-trading, Europe's Left took the High Representative job while the Right grabbed the president's role.

Women leaders, commissioners and female lawmakers in the European parliament had called for a woman to be given one of the roles.

Despite Britain securing one of Europe's top two new jobs, the British press gave Ashton a less than warm welcome.

Many commentators seemed bewildered that a role for which Britain's highly regarded foreign secretary David Miliband had been in the running until he ruled himself out could be filled by a virtual unknown on the world stage.

"From obscurity to the most powerful woman in the UK," said the Guardian in a front-page headline.

The eurosceptic Daily Telegraph said she fitted in perfectly with the EU culture: "She is totally untainted by any experience of democratic election at any stage in her career... this serial appointee is custom-made for high EU office."

The Financial Times commented that she owed her meteoric rise through the ranks to "a mixture of steady competence, low-key charm and luck."

It said her crowning achievement in her EU career so far had been negotiating an "ambitious" free-trade agreement with South Korea.

Despite her apparently inoffensive past, her nomination also rankled with some officials in the service she will have to manage in Brussels, several of whom were visibly upset on Thursday.

Britain has regularly frustrated EU security ambitions, such as efforts to set up a three-year budget for the European Defence Agency and a permanent headquarters in Brussels. Some fear Ashton may apply the brakes even harder.

AFP/Expatica

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