EU officials deny Ashton considering quitting

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European officials denied Monday that EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton is considering quitting, just months after taking up her new job.

In recent weeks Brussels has been abuzz with rumours over the future of Ashton, a Labour member of Britain's House of Lords who assumed the post of EU High Representative for foreign and defence affairs last December.

Most of the claims originated in the London press, with reports suggesting she could stand down within months.

Her aides deny any move towards a premature departure.

Ashton "was chosen by all 27 leaders for a mandate of five years... She will fulfill her mandate," said a spokesman travelling with her in New York.

Baroness Ashton, a former leader of Britain's upper house of parliament, has failed to convince many observers in the new job created to give the European Union a higher profile in global affairs.

Last week the Daily Telegraph, close to the opposition Conservatives, wrote that Ashton "is expected to stand down within months, after widespread criticism that she has failed in the European Union foreign minister post."

Some observers claim that a "whispering campaign" against Ashton was started by Britain's business secretary Peter Mandelson, whom she replaced as EU trade commissioner before taking her current job.

One theory suggests that Mandelson wants current British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to assume the EU job, which would allow him to take over as top diplomat if Labour retains power in Thursday's general election.

However Ashton may also find her position weakened if the Conservatives, who are leading Labour in opinion polls, return to power.

According to some diplomatic sources, a Tory victory would deprive her of support at the moment she most needs it.

She was propelled to the role, to general surprise, by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose Labour party trails third in pre-vote polls.

The appointment of a British, left-leaning woman was seen as a bid to maintain the delicate geographical, political and gender balance between senior ranking EU officials.

Her spokesman said she had a busy diplomatic schedule including trips to Africa, India and Russia, as well as the longer term task of forming from scratch a new External Action Service for the EU.

"No matter who wins the British election" she "intends to work positively and constructively with the new foreign minister no matter who that is," he added, stressing that in recent weeks she had been in touch with the Tories' shadow foreign secretary William Hague.

In Brussels Monday a European Commission spokeswoman dismissed the speculation over Ashton's future as "pure imagination".

Ashton, who has never been elected and has no prior foreign policy experience, previously came under fire in the European parliament for giving vague answers on policy questions.

She has also been criticised for her poor grasp of French and for failing to swiftly visit Haiti after the earthquake there in January.

© 2010 AFP

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