EU trade commissioner-designate Ashton rejects criticism she lacks experience

Tue, Oct 21, 2008, 01:00

EU TRADE commissioner-designate Baroness Catherine Margaret Ashton last night rejected assertions by some MEPs that she was lightweight and did not have enough experience to take over the job of patching up negotiations on a new world trade agreement.

In a statement at the start of a three-hour grilling by the Parliament's committee on international trade, Baroness Ashton maintained that the first steps in her career as a politician and in business had been negotiating trade agreements with the EU on behalf of small- and medium-sized businesses in Britain.

Fighting off allegations that she would not be able to fill the former trade commissioner Peter Mandelsons shoes - or that she would simply carry out the agenda he had set - she said she "might not have the profile of the newly enabled Lord Mandelson, but that doesn't mean I do not have not the experience, quite the reverse".

Baroness Ashton is a former chairwoman of the health authority in Hertfordshire and a vice-president of the National Council for One-Parent Families in Britain. Previously she was director of the Business in the Community initiative and established an employers' forum on disability.

She was made a life peer in 1999 and more recently steered the Lisbon Treaty through the House of Lords. She was appointed leader of the House and lord president of the council in Gordon Brown's first Cabinet in 2007. As well as leader of the Lords, she took responsibility in the House for equality issues.

However, MEP's questions tended to ignore Baroness Ashton's role in Britain, concentrating instead on her plans for world trade and forcing her to acknowledge she had less experience in these matters than some of her future commission colleagues.

Quizzed on the specifics of her approach, she said she saw differences in the regulatory approaches of the US and the EU as an ongoing obstacle to trade. But she said she agreed with Mr Mandelsons view that relations with China were the biggest single challenge in European trade policy.

Describing "three pillars" to her strength as a trade commissioner, Baroness Ashton said they were her early commitment to the EU institutions; her negotiating skills; and the belief that sustainable development involved sustainable trade as a means to nurture communities as well as environmental issues.

The commissioner-designate told Irish MEP Seán Ó Neachtain that she believed in a strong agricultural sector for "food policy, food security and food safety". But she said the agriculture commissioner would be more qualified to discuss agricultural policy.

She dealt confidently with sharp criticism from UK Independence Party MEP Nigel Farage who said her CV was "too thin" and that "we need a big hitter".

Baroness Ashton told him she had "hundreds of experienced people" at her disposal and was more than able to combine that with her "ability to go in and negotiate".