Solid, decent but uninspired: Catherine Ashton makes EU debut
The Guardian - 11 January 2010
by Ian Traynor in Brussels
Europe opened a new year and a new era today: a new commission, a new treaty, a new rule book and a new baroness.
Lady Ashton, veteran of UK quangos and international trade talks, went into the chamber in Brussels to show the EU she has what it takes to be the face and voice of European foreign policy, and emerged three hours later unscathed and victorious.
The grilling ranged from Eritrea to Hillary Clinton, from her youthful zeal as a ban-the-bomber to her mature views on making the world a better place. But nothing could faze her.
As Europe's new top diplomat, Ashton acquitted herself extremely diplomatically. Britain's representative on the new 27-strong commission caused minimum offence. Equally, she inspired minimum enthusiasm.
"I disappointed some of you a little today, maybe a lot today," she noted with the self-deprecation that comes naturally to the Labour peer but which is also being honed as a political and negotiating tactic.
In the end, said Elmar Brok, the long-serving German Christian Democrat, "this is the basis for further co-operation, but no reason for enthusiasm".
Ashton went to room Jan 4Q2 in the shiny. sprawling European parliament in Brussels to kick off the five-year season in EU politics at the democratic high point of a system routinely excoriated for its lack of accountability. She was the first of 26 new commissioners-designate to be put through a three-hour, US Senate-style hearing by MEPs. Under the new regime created by the Lisbon treaty, the parliament is more powerful. And don't those MEPs know it.
Ashton stroked and cuddled them: "You are democratically elected and I am not. I absolutely respect that
I hope you'll always find my door open."
The surprise choice to be the EU's first high representative for foreign and security policy she was shocked when Gordon Brown was out-manoeuvred into nominating her for the job last month Ashton has spent the holiday season boning up on the world's trouble spots and seeking to master the detail of everything from the clans of Nagorno-Karabakh to the tribes of Yemen.
At times today, the questioning appeared to be a conversation among European nobles, despite Ashton's humble Lancastrian roots. A German count told a British baroness he was sorry about her apparent lack of ambition, while a British lord accused her of being on the wrong side of history, the EU's very own Edith Piaf (Je ne regrette rien).
The only sparks to fly in the entire three hours were a very British affair, with the chaps from the Conservative caucus and Ukip invoking Ashton's CND days in the 1970s to tar her as a crypto-communist and KGB stooge.
If Ashton was bland and competent most of the time, the personal attacks brought out the best in her, winning her a rare round of applause.
"I am not a member of CND and have not been for 28 or 29 years," she told Charles Tannock, the Tory MEP, who demanded a straight yes or no answer to whether she remained a unilateral disarmer. "I do not believe that strategy is now appropriate."
Strategy loomed large in Ashton's performance. There was the "coherent strategy", the "strategic framework", the "strategic relationship".
If an issue was not strategic, it was "critical", "hugely important", "very significant", "very challenging". From the Middle East to the White House, from Iran to Russia, from China to Afghanistan, however, there was no lucid presentation of priority, no clue of what she wanted, little sign of whether she saw her role as master or servant.
One MEP told Ashton the parliament did not want her to be "an ambassador for 27 foreign ministers. What are your criteria? What are your ambitions? That's what we're still waiting for."
Another told her: "We want more for you than you want for yourself."
Ashton failed to rise to the occasion. She replied that her paramount aims were the promotion of security and stability in their various senses.
She did not dazzle the MEPs with brilliance, rhetoric, or insights. She left no hostages to fortune by revealing her personal politics. She was decent, competent, conciliatory and solid.
If José Manuel Barroso's second commission falls, it will not be because of Baroness Ashton of Upholland.
"When I talk about quiet diplomacy, this does not necessarily mean that I myself am very quiet," she said. "My interest is in outcomes. Sometimes loudness doesn't work."