Page last updated at 22:45 GMT, Monday, 20 October 2008 23:45 UK

Key EU committee endorses Ashton

Baroness Ashton before the European Trade Committee
Baroness Ashton said she would argue the case for free trade

A key Brussels committee has endorsed Baroness Ashton as the UK's nominee for EU trade commissioner, despite some MEPs expressing reservations about her.

In her first public appearance since being put forward for the role, she defended her suitability for the post.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a member of the European Parliament's trade committee, said she did not have "relevant experience" for the job.

But she said she had the authority to negotiate complex trade deals.

'Open and transparent'

Appearing before MEPs, Baroness Ashton praised her predecessor Lord Mandelson.

Baroness Ashton was asked by MEPs to respond to recent newspaper claims that Lord Mandelson, now back in Westminster as UK business secretary, had faced a potential conflict of interest during his time as EU trade chief arising from his alleged links with a Russian billionaire.

On Sunday, Lord Mandelson dismissed the reports as "muck raking" and "innuendo".

The question is do I have the ability to go and negotiate on behalf of the European Union...The answer is, yes I do
Baroness Ashton

Asked whether she would declare all hospitality and any personal links she might have in the course of her new job, Baroness Ashton remarked that her predecessor was a "man of great integrity".

"He has already taken great strides to deal with the stories that have appeared about him," she said.

Of her own position, she said: "I have no difficulty in saying I will be as open and as transparent as possible."

Baroness Ashton has faced criticism she was parachuted into the role to allow Lord Mandelson to return to Westminster and to prevent a by-election, which would have resulted if an MP had been appointed.

'Big hitter'

Mr Farage queried whether she was equipped to take on what, he said, was the most important trade brief in the world at a time of growing economic instability around the globe.

"Now is not the time for a novice," he said.

"We need a big hitter. Looking at your CV, you have no relevant experience to take on this dossier at a difficult time."

Baroness Ashton, a former economist, said she was qualified to do the job and would argue the cause for free trade against the forces of economic nationalism.

"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 told MEPs.

"The answer is, yes I do. I am a negotiator. It is what I do."

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