Page last updated at 08:27 GMT, Tuesday, 21 October 2008 09:27 UK

Grilling for EU's would-be trade tsar

By Chris Mason
Europe Correspondent, Nations and Regions, BBC News, Strasbourg

Baroness Ashton before the European Trade Committee, 20 October 2008
Baroness Ashton said she believed globalisation was a force for good

Imagine the job interview from hell. You're perched behind a table with only a bottle of water for company.

Not just in front of you, but to the left, right and even behind, are about 200 people primed with rhetorical grenades they can't wait to fire in your direction.

Becoming one of the most important people in world trade doesn't come easily.

Baroness Ashton is the British government's nomination to replace former European Trade Commissioner Lord Mandelson, who's returned to the UK to become business secretary.

To secure the job, she had three hours to prove one thing - that she's up to it.

Wearing a sombre purple suit, her hands clasped together and smiling nervously, her pitch was simple. She told MEPs she was a tough negotiator, strongly pro-European and would make a virtue out of her relative obscurity.

"The question is, do I have the ability to go and negotiate on behalf of the European Union, bearing in mind that I want stability and economic growth," she said.

"The answer is, yes I do. I am a negotiator. It is what I do. I may not have had the profile of the newly-ennobled Lord Mandelson, but that does not mean that I don't have the experience. Quite the contrary."

Social conscience

She referred repeatedly to her work as an economist, government minister and Leader of the House of Lords - and also pointed out that she had hundreds of very experienced Commission experts at her disposal as she reads her way into her new job.

A returning theme was a commitment to reviving the stalled world trade talks - and doing so with a social conscience.

The former EU trade chief, now Lord Mandelson
Mr Mandelson faced French objections to his stance in the Doha talks

"I believe globalisation is a force for good. But I was brought up in Lancashire, which used to be the heart of the textiles industry," she said.

"I know what communities go through when there is huge upheaval. We have a responsibility to help those affected by the process."

Attempting to strike a balance on just this issue led her predecessor into a public conflict with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who accused Lord Mandelson of trying to force a trade deal on the EU that would destroy European jobs and sell out European farmers in the name of free trade.

How would she deal with such a clash, demanded the pugnacious and direct leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage.

She insisted protecting citizens was important - but not at the cost of economic protectionism and standing in the way of free trade. Quite the opposite, she said. With the current financial crisis, open markets would be more important than ever.

Doha dilemma

To that end, her first visit, if she's confirmed in the job, will be to Geneva, the home of the World Trade Organization. The so-called Doha Round of world trade talks, which are currently stalled, are her priority.

"A successful Doha Round remains absolutely central to EU trade policy. We have to see whether we can put it back on track," she said.

And so the questioning went on - and became more specific. As if answering obscure questions on trading relations with specific South American economies wasn't a challenge, merely finding the questioners in the audience was proving tricky enough.

"I won't commit to doing something about something about which I know little" - and answers on a similar vein - were as inevitable as they were understandable for someone so new to the post.

Not everyone here is convinced she is the best person for the job - but there is an acceptance from many that her bullish if defensive performance, and willingness to listen, is a good sign.

The challenge for her now is to master her incredibly complex brief, quickly. The difficult questions she'll face are only just beginning.


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