New EU Foreign Affairs Supremo: 'I Know Where the Coffee Is'

World | December 3, 2009, Thursday // 13:40|  views

Catherine Ashton was grilled by the European Parliament on her second day as EU supremo for foreign affairs. Photo by BGNES

Catherine Ashton, the newly appointed EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, has made her first official appearance, at the European Parliament.

Ashton underwent a two-hour interrogation my MEPs on Wednesday, defending her controversial nomination as the first foreign affairs head under the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force on December 1.

MEPs found many of her answers were "too vague" and "general". She was limited to sessions of four minutes only in her answers, which did not leave her much time to elaborate on her replies. On the other hand, this may have served to protect her from exposing her lack of knowledge on some topics.

When questioned by Lithuanian MEP Vytautas Landsbergis,on the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline between Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea, she seemed not to know that the pipeline was considered a pan-European project under the EU's 'Trans-European Networks' energy guidelines.

She apologized several times for her answers, saying it was only "day two" of her new brief, and that she was, for the moment, totally on her own.

One of her priority tasks, she announced, was to implement a massive new department of 6 000 people, the European External Action Service (EEAS), which she is expected to lead. She added that her objective was to present a proposal that would allow the Council to make a decision by the end of April 2010.

The "coffee" comment was part of a serious reply to a question as to where she would be based. Ashton said that her office would be in the European Commission building

While many MEPs took a slightly lenient attitude to her during the session, the most ferocious attacks came from British MEPS.

Charles Tannock of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group took her to task for not having run for election. His fellow ECR MEP, Geoffrey Van Orden, asked her whether she would resign if opposition leader David Cameron were to become prime minister in the UK.

She replied that she had been elected, according to the EU treaties, by EU leaders. "I may not be your choice, but I appear to be theirs," she told Tannock, to applause.

In response to Van Orden, Ashton said that his political leader, David Cameron, had been the first to congratulate her on November 19. "I still have his voicemail message, if you want to hear it," she added.

Some MEPs made more considered statements after the interview session. European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) group leader Timothy Kirkhope said:

"We were pleasantly surprised at how she dealt with a number of difficult questions. While lacking in substance, many of her answers showed someone well briefed and adept at handling politically challenging questions," he said.

"We will be holding Lady Aston fully to account and will keep a watching brief on her statements and policy announcements. However as a first outing, we remain cautiously optimistic of her abilities," Kirkope concluded.

Catherine Aston will face a further encounter with MEPs in mid-January. She promised that the January meeting would offer a much better opportunity for full discussion.

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Tags: Catherine Ashton, EU, EP, MEP, High Representative, foreign affairs


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