Catherine Ashton - Appointment and Reception

Appointment and Reception

Further information: High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy#Ashton

On 19 November 2009, Ashton was appointed the EU's first High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Her appointment was agreed by a summit of 27 European Union leaders in Brussels. After actively pushing for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to become President of the European Council, Gordon Brown eventually relented on the condition that the High Representative position was awarded to a Briton.

Ashton's position also presides over several European institutions, including the European Union Institute for Security Studies as the Chair of its Board.

Ashton's relative obscurity caused considerable comment in the media with The Guardian newspaper reporting that her appointment as High Representative had received a 'cautious welcome as EU foreign minister from international relations experts'. The Economist described her as being a virtual unknown with paltry political experience, having no foreign-policy background and having never been elected to anything. The magazine did however credit her with having piloted the Lisbon Treaty through the House of Lords, having handled the European Commission's trade portfolio without falling out with her colleagues, and being suited to consensus-building.

On the one hand, critics say she is likely to be out of her depth, never having been elected to any office. For example, on her appointment, the associate editor of The Spectator, and former editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Rod Liddle, wrote: "Never elected by anyone, anywhere, totally unqualified for almost every job she has done, she has risen to her current position presumably through a combination of down-the-line Stalinist political correctness and the fact that she has the charisma of a caravan site on the Isle of Sheppey." According to The Guardian, an anonymous Whitehall source remarked: "Cathy just got lucky...The appointment of her and Herman Van Rompuy was a complete disgrace. They are no more than garden gnomes." On the other hand, Shami Chakrabarti, the director of a pressure group called Liberty, who became friends with Ashton when she was a minister at the Department of Constitutional Affairs, said her critics were wrong: "People underestimate Cathy at their peril. She is not a great big bruiser. She is a persuader and a charmer. That is the secret of her success." Her friend, Ian McCartney, MP, said on her appointment: "She is a Wigan girl who has really made good... She is supportive of working people and has never forgotten her roots." The morning after her appointment, Ashton told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Over the next few months and years I aim to show that I am the best person for the job. I hope that my particular set of skills will show that in the end I am the best choice."

In February 2010, it emerged that Ashton had been heavily criticised within the EU community for a number of actions, including her failure to visit Haiti in the wake of the earthquake. She was also criticised for allegedly lacking leadership abilities during ministerial meetings and policy briefing. Senior officials within her team complained that she speaks only in "generalities". She was also criticised for a lack of commitment to the job, switching off her phone after 8 pm every day. She drew further criticism, from Agnès Poirier, for the fact that she cannot speak any foreign languages. Ashton has been angered by the criticism, which, according to aides, she argues is a result of the "latent sexism" within the EU community. Ashton came under further criticism, including explicit criticism from national defence ministers Hervé Morin, Carme Chacón, Jack de Vries, and EU minister Pierre Lellouche, for her failure to attend the European Defence Summit in Majorca. Ashton has complained to the press that the lack of resources provided to her, such as her own plane, is holding her back in her work.

In February 2011 Baroness Ashton has come bottom of the class in a survey rating the performance of European Commissioners. Sixty nine per cent of 324 Brussels "policy-makers", with EU and national officials constituting the largest group, ranked Europe's first foreign minister as "disappointing" or "below average". The survey, carried out by Burson-Marsteller, a lobbying and PR company, asked respondents to rate European Commissioners on a report card grading of A to E. None scored lower than D except for Lady Ashton, a commission vice-president as well as the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, who scored an E for her performance. "Not surprisingly after a horrendous first year Ashton came lowest overall and in terms of living up to her commitments," concluded the survey.

Secretary General Pierre Vimont defended Ashton from criticism; praising her work in opening the EEAS office in Benghazi, Libya as making the EEAs very popular in Libya. He also supported her over Syria and has asked her to stand for a second term. Polish Minister for Europe, Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, also stated criticism against Ashton was "a lot of hot air" and that "she has an impossible job to do and she is doing it well. At the end of her time in office, people will be more positive about what she has done. She will leave a real legacy."

Ashton faced questions in the European Parliament over her role as national treasurer in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s, amid claims by its opponents that it may have had financial links to the Soviet Union. The eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party has written to Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, asking him to investigate whether Ashton was party to payments that he alleged were made to CND from the Soviet regime in Moscow. Ashton’s office refused to discuss CND’s funding in detail. It merely said that she “left CND in 1983 and had no involvement after that”.

On 19 March 2012, Ashton was criticized by several newspapers for comparing the shooting of Jewish children in Toulouse with the situation in Gaza. Ashton said to Palestinian youths at a UNRWA event,

“when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and Sderot and in different parts of the world – we remember young people and children who lose their lives.” After she was misquoted in the press as having not mentioned Sderot, Israeli ministers harshly criticised her equating the murder of three children and a rabbi in the shooting attack with the situation in Gaza. Her spokesman stated that her remark had been “grossly distorted” and that she had also referenced Israeli victims in Sderot, but this had been incorrectly omitted from the original transcript.

In September 2012, the Daily Telegraph criticised her European Commission attendance record, reporting that Baroness Ashton had been completely absent from 21 out of 32 weekly meetings held so far that year.

Read more about this topic:  Catherine Ashton

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