The rise of the invisible woman


After years of low-profile service to the New Labour cause, the emergence of Catherine Ashton as the EU’s new foreign affairs chief came as a big surprise, writes Europe Correspondent Arthur Beesley

CATHERINE ASHTON’S elevation to the very apex of European politics caps a remarkable career forged largely on the sidelines of British politics. Unknown outside the House of Lords, a newcomer to Brussels and largely untested in international affairs, she steps forth now as the EU’s chief diplomat. Can she do it? Soon we shall see.

A marginal figure on the European stage who has never been elected to office, Ashton is a most unlikely High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Up to 10 days ago, she had no public profile to speak of, anywhere in the EU or beyond. If her new job title suggests seriousness and grandeur, the task itself is labyrinthine in its complexity. The post is undoubtedly powerful, yes, but laced with the potential for intrigue and controversy.

Ashton will have charge of foreign policy, always tricky, in a bloc whose members are often divided over fundamental principles in their engagement with the outside world. With unexpected disturbance inevitable in the international scene, she will have to respond quickly in the unsparing glare of the media. Nuance and polish will be required, always. She must also manage the establishment of the EU’s new diplomatic service, with bureaucratic turf wars likely.

A legion of ambitious bigger beasts wanted this job – deemed “impossible” by some at the top of the EU hierarchy – but the constellation aligned to thrust Ashton into the post. She faces a pivotal test next Wednesday when she faces questions before the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament. It will be but the first of many.

Ashton is more a “people politician” than a policy fiend. Although she was a beginner in the machinations of international trade when she became EU trade commissioner last year, she is widely perceived to have performed well in that role. Her charm is considerable and disarming, says a European Commission official, who adds that she quickly grasps the political essence of a problem. As a very late starter in the world of diplomacy, however, the scope of her new job is daunting.

“It’s going to be a huge learning curve for her. Foreign relations may seem simple, but they are not. I’m not sure she will enjoy the job for quite a while,” says one commission official.

Quite how Ashton came to the fore is a story of ambition unburdened by self-promotion in the media. Although most political careers cannot flourish without publicity – and lots of it at that – her route to power was by other means. She apparently saw no need to cultivate the media as she rose through the New Labour machine and never courted its attention, possibly raising questions about her self-confidence in that forum. What is more, she is married to a former journalist and political pollster, Peter Kellner, a man who enjoys a high media profile and has the respect of Downing Street. Ashton herself prefers to rely on her considerable networking skills.

Tony Blair became a key supporter, Gordon Brown too. Her new champion is José Manuel Barroso, chief of the European Commission. Barroso knows, however, that Ashton is unlikely to outshine him on the global stage. Although she can be tough with adversaries, the manner of her appointment raises questions as to whether she will be tough with Barroso himself.

ASHTON TOOK HER time moving into the political fast lane. Her first political dalliance was with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, membership of which was de rigueur for young leftists when she came of age in the 1970s. Ultimately, she became its treasurer, a fact which this week led to Eurosceptic allegations of shady links with Soviet Russia, claims that were ridiculed by her camp.

In the 1980s Ashton worked to promote social responsibility in business, a fashionable notion these days but less so in Thatcher’s Britain. She was director of Business in the Community, where she established an employers’ forum on disability and groups to help working women and young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. She became chairwoman of Hertfordshire health authority in 1998 and was vice-president of the National Council for One Parent Families.

So far, so low-key. Her break came in 1999 when Blair gave her a life peerage, enabling her to sit in the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper chamber. She took her title, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, from her place of birth in Lancashire. She went on to hold junior ministerial positions as parliamentary under-secretary of state in the education, constitutional affairs and justice departments.

Crucially, the baroness avoided being seen to take sides in the Blair-Brown schism. After Brown finally entered 10 Downing Street, he made her leader of the House of Lords. In that job she marshalled passage of the Lisbon Treaty through the house, unperturbed at a sensitive moment when news came through that Irish voters had rejected the treaty in the first referendum.

There she resided until the autumn of last year, when she was the beneficiary of a massive stroke of luck. When the arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson stood down as EU trade commissioner to return to Westminister to bolster Brown’s ailing administration, the question arose as to who would succeed him in Brussels.

With Brown keen to avoid a potentially damaging by-election, a candidate who was not an MP was required, and Ashton’s charm and air of competence put her in pole position . Still, it was a remarkable promotion.

“She’s not a heavy-hitter in British government circles. She’s a nonentity in British politics,” says a source close to Downing Street.

That said, Ashton is credited, in the EU trade brief, with brokering a €67 billion trade deal with South Korea, with resolving a long-running dispute over US beef imports and with moving close to a settlement of a dispute over bananas.

“I think she has been an outstanding trade commissioner and has shown many of the political skills needed to make a success of this new job,” says David O’Sullivan, the Irishman who is EU Director General for Trade.

NEVERTHELESS, THE MANNER of Ashton’s promotion to the foreign policy post at a special EU summit last week prompted bewilderment across the spectrum. With Blair out the running for the post of president of the European Council and British foreign secretary David Miliband ruling himself out of contention for the foreign affairs job, Ashton was but one of three compromise candidates promoted for that post by Brown. The others – Mandelson and former defence secretary Geoff Hoon – brought more political clout to the table but proved unacceptable to EU leaders in the socialist group.

This group were the kingmakers, given the selection of the centre-right Belgian leader, Herman Van Rompuy, as president of the European Council. Their choice, against all the odds, was Ashton. It was endorsed by Barroso, who had the power of veto over the appointment.

The fact that Ashton herself had booked a train ticket home for the night in question implies that the selection came as a big surprise to her too.

“The view here is that she got very lucky. She was in the right place at the right time. People may not have known a huge amount about her, but she’s a fantastic networker. She’s been immensely successful at plotting and planning her own success,” says the Downing Street source.

Notwithstanding the unanimous vote by EU leaders in favour of a Van Rompuy-Ashton ticket, many observers in Brussels sense that these determinedly low-profile appointments underscore a desire on the part of EU leaders to maintain the supremacy of nation states within the union.

Despite a years-long push to reform the union’s systems and structure through the Lisbon Treaty, the task of managing the change in the critical foreign arena has been handed to a beginner. This marks a retreat from grander ambitions for the EU – and yet another extraordinary advance for Ashton’s ambitions. She may be displeased at the bad press her appointment has received, but she can’t truly have been surprised.

Who is she? Catherine Margaret Ashton, aka Cathy, aka Baroness Ashton of Upholland, aka High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

CV Catherine Ashton


Why is she in the news?Against all the odds, she is the EU’s new foreign policy chief

Most likely to say?“Good afternoon, Secretary of State”

Least likely to say?“I can’t believe Hillary doesn’t know who I am”