Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

Ashton: 'I am best person for EU foreign job'

Baroness Ashton says she will work with "quiet diplomacy" in her new role

Baroness Ashton has hit back at claims she does not have enough experience for the post of EU high representative for foreign affairs and security.

The Labour peer was the surprise choice of Europe's leaders for the role - dubbed the first EU foreign minister.

Lady Ashton told the BBC that EU leaders were "comfortable" with her appointment - and that she will show she is "the best person for the job".

Belgian Herman van Rompuy is the new president of the EU Council.

On Thursday UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown abandoned his campaign for his predecessor Tony Blair to get the president's job after recognising he did not have enough support.

'Stitch-up'

Instead Baroness Ashton got the other top job created by the Lisbon Treaty.

She was a government minister for eight years, latterly as leader of the House of Lords, before being chosen to replace Lord Mandelson as EU Trade Commissioner in 2008.

Critics attacked the appointments as a "stitch-up" done behind closed doors, saying Baroness Ashton and Mr van Rompuy were relative unknowns with little political clout.

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Baroness Ashton dismissed claims that she had never been elected and that millions of Europeans had had no say in her appointment.

Over the next few months and years I aim to show I am the best person for this job
Baroness Ashton

"Their 27 elected heads of state have had a say and they all decided on me," she said.

She rejected criticism the appointments had been decided in secret saying: "We should never take away those opportunities for heads of state to talk frankly to one another."

EU leaders were "very comfortable" with her appointment, she said.

"This is not about a fudge, it's about trying to reach a conclusion.

"Over the next few months and years I aim to show I am the best person for this job.

"I think for quite a few people they would say I am the best for the job and I was chosen because I am."

CND support

She added: "I hope that my particular set of skills will show that in the end I am the best choice."

And she denied suggestions that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other foreign ministers did not know who she was.

"It's not the case at all. Of course there are foreign ministers I haven't met but... I have worked alongside ministers from across the world," she said.

FROM THE TODAY PROGRAMME

"It's not about gathering power, it's about saying as a team we are much more powerful and I will represent that team."

Downing Street said Lady Ashton's appointment was "a very good result for Britain" and dismissed suggestions she was not up to the job.

The prime minister's official spokesman also rejected suggestions her past support for CND - she worked for the anti-nuclear group in the late 1970s - meant she was unsuitable for a post that involved responsibility for EU security policy, saying it was "a very long time ago".

The spokesman said Mr Brown had spoken to Mr Blair on Thursday after it became apparent that he was not going to get the presidency.

"Tony Blair, I think, completely understands the situation. I think he has been very understanding about how these meetings have panned out," he said.

Lower profile

Mr Brown said he still believed Mr Blair would have been "excellent" in the president's role but the Conservatives expressed satisfaction that the lower-profile Belgian, Mr van Rompuy, had been appointed instead.

Mr Brown has welcomed the decision to appoint his friend and ally Baroness Ashton to the new EU role, saying it gave Britain "a powerful voice in Europe".

BBC Europe editor Gavin Hewitt said some Eurosceptics would be celebrating the appointment of Mr van Rompuy because it signalled an end to calls for a powerful European Council president who would impact on the world stage.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said: "I am very pleased that those of us across Europe who said that the president should be a chairman, not a chief, have won the argument."


Baroness Ashton is ideal for the role. She has never had a proper job and never been elected to public office

Nigel Farage
UKIP

Former Labour leader and former EU commissioner Lord Kinnock said she was a "very substantial" figure who would do an outstanding job, while Lord Mandelson said the appointment of Mr van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton would help ensure Europe punched above its weight.

But Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, which campaigns for Britain's withdrawal from the EU, branded the decision "disgraceful".

"We've got the appointment of two political pygmies," he said. "In terms of a global voice, the European Union will now be much derided by the rest of the world."

He added: "Baroness Ashton is ideal for the role. She has never had a proper job and never been elected to public office."

The Liberal Democrats welcomed the news. Foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey said: "With low-profile appointees, no-one can take seriously any longer the Eurosceptic deception that these positions would challenge the supremacy of nation states acting together when they agree."



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