Ashton rejects claims she lacks correct experience


INCOMING EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, a Briton who has never been elected to public office, has defended her appointment against critics who claim she lacks relevant experience.

In a round of media interviews following her surprise elevation by EU leaders to the powerful foreign portfolio, Ms Ashton argued she had the right skills for the post and insisted she had a “good understanding” of the relationships the EU should have with big powers such as the US, Russia and China.

Appointed EU trade commissioner late last year in succession to Peter Mandelson, she was given the foreign portfolio on Thursday night when EU leaders overcame deep divisions to anoint Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy as president of the European Council.

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso indicated yesterday he will soon set about the task of allocating portfolios in his incoming teams, but said he awaited nominations from about four EU governments.

The Irish nominee is Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, a former Fianna Fáil minister.

While Mr Barroso declined to discuss the likely destination of portfolios, he told reporters in Brussels he had plenty of time to carry out his task, as European Parliament hearings to ratify nominations to the new commissions will not begin until January 11th.

There are expectations in EU circles that incoming French commissioner Michel Barnier will receive the powerful internal market portfolio now held by Irish commissioner Charlie McCreevy in return for French support for the deal to appoint Ms Ashton and Mr Van Rompuy.

Ms Ashton’s appointment has been criticised because she has no apparent specialist expertise in international diplomacy and is virtually unknown on the global stage.

She has insisted, however, that she has the right credentials to negotiate with the biggest international powers, and said she would strengthen the EU’s voice around the world.

Her experience will enable her to deal with the EU’s biggest global partners.

“Having been trade commissioner, I have the right credentials and been involved heavily in the key summits. Therefore I am very familiar with all the key issues, way beyond the portfolio I have held,” she said.

“Secondly, because economic relationships are so critical and so vital in these big relationships, they have formed the basis of these relationships.

“So I feel I have a good underpinning, a good understanding of the kind of relationships we need with those big countries and others in the future,” she added.

“What is going to be significant will be the big key relationships we have across the world which we need to foster and develop.”

Observers in the EU institutions and the diplomatic world were particularly surprised at Ms Ashton’s ascent because of her lack of profile in British front-line politics.

However, she stressed the fact that her elevation had received unanimous support from EU leaders.

“In a process like this, it doesn’t matter where you come in the pecking order. What really matters is that I got the unanimous support of the council and here I am.”

Asked who would make decisions on important foreign policy issues, she said views would still emerge from the European Council.

“The council . . . will deliberate, will determine the views with my support, I hope with my input and expertise, and that will be the voice that I will speak with.”

In addition to her duties as foreign policy chief, she will also serve as a vice-president of the European Commission. Because of that, her appointment will have to ratified by the parliament.