Friday, 20 November 2009 10:47
The little-known Labour peer who emerged as the surprise choice to be Europe's first 'foreign minister' declared today that she was determined to prove she was the best person for the job.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland, the EU trade commissioner who has never held elected office, said she was 'humbled' to have been picked by EU leaders for the new post of High Representative.
Her appointment was announced last night at a special summit in Brussels where another largely unknown figure - Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy - became the first EU President.
Lady Ashton acknowledged that there had been other candidates who could have done the job of High Representative, but insisted she was ready to join the foreign ministers of the world's most powerful nations at the 'top table'.
'Over the next few months and years I aim to show that I am the best person for the job,' she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
'I think for quite a few people they would say that I am the best person for the job and I was chosen because I am, but I absolutely recognise there are a number of candidates around, all of whom would have been extremely good, extremely able.
'I hope that my particular set of skills will show that in the end I am the best choice.'
She pointed out that since becoming trade commissioner last year when Peter Mandelson was recalled from Brussels to rejoin the Government, she has already taken the lead for the EU in high level trade talks with China.
But having served for a number of years as a Labour minister in the House of Lords - including as Leader of the Lords - she has not had the experience of being directly elected.
'I am humbled by it, in that I am very conscious of those who have been elected so it's why I spend a lot of time in the European Parliament,' she said.
'It's why when I was leader of the House of Lords I was very conscious of the role of the House of Commons, of MPs and the importance of those elected representatives.’
She said she had discovered only in the past few days that she was being discussed as a possible candidate for High Representative.
The suggestion was taken up at a meeting yesterday of the socialist group leaders, where Gordon Brown finally abandoned his campaign for Tony Blair to become president.
Lady Ashton said: 'I was told that there was a great deal of support for me ... and then that translated into further meetings with other prime ministers right across the political spectrum and across Europe, and then finally unanimity.'
She added: 'They reached a conclusion that, certainly from last night's experience, I think they are very comfortable with.'
She said she would draw her authority in international negotiations from the general affairs council of EU foreign ministers, which she will now chair.
'The council will deliberate, will determine the views, with my support, I hope with my input and my expertise, and that will be the voice I will speak with,' she said.
Mr Brown last night welcomed Lady Ashton's appointment.
'It gives Britain a powerful voice both within the council and the commission,' Mr Brown said. 'It will ensure, of course, that Britain's voice is very loud and clear.'
But, adding to the sense that Lady Ashton had been plucked from obscurity, Mr Brown repeatedly referred to her as 'Cathy Ashdown'.
Lady Ashton had to be called on the telephone to see if she would accept the job once Mr Brown dropped his backing for Mr Blair.
Lady Ashton will head up a 5,000-strong EU diplomatic service with 120 embassies around the globe, and have a say in the allocation of the bloc's £6.5billion foreign aid budget.
The job is expected to attract a salary of more than £200,000 a year, along with a grace-and-favour home and lavish expenses.
A former employee of CND, Lady Ashton will now be responsible for Europe's security and defence policy.
The Prime Minister said he still felt that Mr Blair - whom he backed for the presidency - would have been 'excellent'.
But he added: 'As the week went by it became clear that the EPP [the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament] wanted to have one of their own members as president of the council.'
A senior No 10 source said Mr Brown's backing of Mr Blair, long after his chances had faded, had given Britain 'leverage' to get Lady Ashton the job as the second most powerful figure in the EU.
Friends of the bruised former prime minister - nicknamed 'Boney Blair' for his Napoleonic ambitions - said he was deeply disappointed by his rejection.
Mr Blair's biographer Anthony Seldon said the former prime minister was so angry over the Tories' decision to try to torpedo his bid that he is willing to set aside his differences with Mr Brown and campaign for him in next year's General Election.
But he said Mr Blair's failure to get the EU post had also 'whetted his appetite for another big international role'.
Some EU leaders feared that they might be overshadowed by Mr Blair's grandstanding on the world stage.
Leaked documents yesterday revealed that the new president will have a salary of £320,000, far in excess of the £197,000 paid to Mr Brown or the £245,000 received by U.S. president Barack Obama.
The total cost of the president and his team to the taxpayer is expected to top £5.5million a year.
Mr Van Rompuy somewhat cryptically promised to listen to all EU members.
'Even though our unity is our strength, our diversity remains our wealth,' he said. He is expected to take office on January 1.
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, said: 'The EU has this evening appointed two political pygmies who have the power to remove the last vestiges of democracy from the UK.
'Baroness Ashton is ideal for the role. She's never had a proper job, and never been elected to public office.'
Lorraine Mullally, director of the think-tank Open Europe, said: 'This is an outrageous stitch-up by Europe's elite.
'Meeting over a nice big dinner and behind closed doors 27 people in Brussels will decide on the two biggest jobs in Europe while the 500million citizens they are supposed to represent are expected just to hang on and wait for the outcome.'
Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, however, congratulated Mr Van Rompuy and Lady Ashton on their appointments.