A particular set of skills Print E-mail
January 2010 Politics

British politician Catherine Ashton is confident that she is the best choice for EU foreign policy - By Ralf Sotscheck

Before the lady from Lancashire can be sworn in, the European Parliament has to endorse her nomination for the job of EU high representative for foreign and security policy on Jan. 26. No one is anticipating a "no."

Surprise! National leaders at a special EU summit in November nominated Catherine Ashton as the new EU foreign policy supremo. Even in her native Britain, her name is not widely recognized. But Ashton, 53, is taking over one of the most important jobs in Europe.

It's true that the future EU high representative for foreign and security policy - to the British, the title of "foreign minister" sounded too much like a shift of power to Brussels - will not have a lot of room for maneuver. When it comes to relations with Russia, Iran's nuclear program and the war in Afghanistan, for example, the leaders of EU countries are in rare agreement. That means in those areas, the EU foreign policy chief's hands will be tied.

Ashton will be taking on the jobs that EU High Representative Javier Solana and European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner used to do. She will also be in charge of a budget that totals millions of euros and be responsible for setting up a brand new bureaucratic machinery. That means she will leave her mark on the office.

Ashton will be building the European Foreign Service, with its 7,000 civil servants, from the ground up and chairing the EU General Affairs and External Relations Council. She will also be vice president of the European Commission.

That is why the nominee for this post requires the endorsement of the European Parliament, just like the other European Commissioners. The plenary vote is planned for Jan. 26. In light of the difficult negotiation process, nobody is anticipating a "no."

"I think the decision shows that Britain is at the heart of Europe," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. "She is the first woman to hold such a high position in the EU. There will be many who will be delighted that one other barrier of discrimination and prejudice of the past has been broken down by her appointment."

Critics tend to point out that Ashton and new European Council President Herman Van Rompuy are decent, respectable mediocrities. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, head of the European Greens, put it harshly: "Europe is sinking to a new low."

"The only thing anyone can find to say about Ashton is that she is nice," wrote British daily The Guardian derisively. Another daily, The Times, caustically pointed out that "a former chairwoman of Hertfordshire Health Authority" had become the European foreign policy chief.

"Ashton was chosen because she is from the right political family, from a state that needed to get a big portfolio but not in finance or trade since it is not trusted on either any more, and because she is a woman," said Simon Hix, professor of European politics at the London School of Economics. "The rest of the world was expecting big figures but Europe has shown it would rather be a super-sized Switzerland."

In the 1970s, Ashton studied business management at Bedford College, University of London. She became politically active and worked for a nuclear disarmament campaign from 1977 to 1979. She had the job of monitoring MI5, the British military intelligence service, back then. She later became a member of the Labour Party and chaired the public health authority in Hertfordshire.

Ashton became parliamentary under-secretary of state at the British Ministry of Education in 2001 and moved to the Ministry of Justice in 2007. Blair elevated her to the House of Lords in 1999. Her official title is Baroness Ashton of Upholland, her hometown, and she has been a lifetime member of the upper house since then.

Blair's successor Gordon Brown appointed her as leader to the House of Lords in 2007. In this function, she helped steer the EU Treaty of Lisbon - which is the basis for her new post - through the British upper house in the face of Tory resistance.

Two aspects of her career stand out: Ashton has never been voted into any office; she has always been appointed. And she is rarely a first choice. Prime Minister Brown sent her to Brussels as trade commissioner in 2008 because he needed her predecessor, the crafty spin-doctor and New Labour architect Peter Mandelson, at his side in London to support his ailing government.

London actually wanted to see former Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed to the post of European Council president. Brown did not play the Ashton-for-foreign-minister card until German Chancellor Angela Merkel clearly indicated that the presidency post would have to go to a conservative.

There was little to recommend the baroness as the first EU foreign policy chief. However, shortly before her appointment, a government official from Paris called the European Commission to ask whether Ashton also speaks "la langue de Molière." A positive answer removed one more hurdle from the track.

According to Lady Ashton, she does not need to do any extra homework when it comes to foreign policy. As trade commissioner, she noted, she attended many conferences and summits last year and was able to forge ties with most of the partners who will be important for her new office.

She is also fond of pointing out that she has learned to coordinate and create consensus. "I hope that my particular set of skills will show that in the end I am the best choice," she said.

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