Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

New EU foreign chief criticised for lack of specifics

AFP - 11 January 2010

BRUSSELS Europe's new foreign affairs chief won tepid support Monday at a parliamentary confirmation hearing after failing to impress a number of deputies with what they called vague answers to policy questions.

At a meeting of parties following a three-hour question-and-answer session, a majority of groups in the assembly parties gave Catherine Ashton a "favourable opinion", one lawmaker said.

"She showed a capacity for dialogue with the parliament, even if there were some shortfalls on certain questions," said the deputy, Spain's Jose Ignacio Salafranca, whose conservative group is the largest in the assembly.

His conservative colleague, Elmar Brok, was less enthusiastic about the performance of the woman who has become the EU's top diplomat.

"There's no reason to be enthusiastic. She has no vision for the post," said Brok, but still backed the 53-year-old English baroness, who will also hold a senior vice-president's post in the European Commission.

Ashton's socialist allies, the second-largest formation, gave their backing.

Austrian Greens deputy Ulrike Lunacek lamented that Ashton "has shown herself to be a true diplomat: rich on words, poor on specifics. Her hearing has revealed no clear sense of vision, no initiatives and no plans of her own."

But British conservative deputy Charles Tannock, whose party is expected to take power from Ashton's Labour this year, blamed the deputies for their questioning as much as his countrywoman's performance.

"The bar was set low at the hearing and she appeared to do enough to prevent the European Parliament from standing in her way," he said.

Under its previous holder Javier Solana, the post of top EU diplomat focused on smoothing relations and boosting Europe's influence in such places as the Middle East, Iran and the Balkans.

But the job has greater powers under the new Lisbon Treaty of reforms, even though the EU's 27 nations remain well in charge over foreign and defence policy, with Ashton set to be their mouthpiece.

Despite the pressure, Ashton appeared relaxed throughout, confidently responding to questions mainly focused on institutional concerns and how the former EU trade commissioner saw the future of EU foreign policy.

She gave answers that demonstrated an understanding of the issues, but would not be drawn into diplomatic minefields like her stance on sanctions against Iran and was cautious on Middle East policy.

More broadly she urged Europe to play a greater role on the world stage.

"I am convinced there is a clear call, inside the EU and around the world, for greater European engagement -- to promote peace, protect the vulnerable, fight poverty and address the many problems of our time," she said.

"We have to answer this call."

Attacked by Tannock over her role as an activist with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament organisation, Ashton replied: "The relevance of the 1970s is not the relevance of 2010."

"I'm not a member of CND and have not been a member of CND for 28 or 29 years," she said, adding: "I'm not ashamed of who I am or what I've been."

The session was the first in a series of US-style confirmation hearings for the new European Commission, which draws up legislation that impacts on the lives of 500 million Europeans, enforces existing rules and had a budget of 116 billion euros (174 billion dollars) in 2008.

In Monday's other main hearing, Finnish commissioner Olli Rehn, who takes the key economic and monetary affairs portfolio, insisted that Greece was unlikely to abandon the eurozone due to its ominous debt and deficit crisis.

On Tuesday, Belgium's Karel De Gucht is scrutinised as trade commissioner, with France's Michel Barnier, a controversial appointee as internal market and financial services commissioner, facing lawmakers Wednesday.