22nd May 2019

New EU trade commissioner defends qualifications

  • Baroness Catherine Ashton at Monday's hearings in Strasbourg (Photo: EUobserver)

Baroness Catherine Ashton presented her negotiation skills and strong pro-European views as the main assets for taking over the EU trade commissioner job, during hearings in the European Parliament's international trade committee on Monday evening (20 October).

"I am someone who regards herself as strongly pro-European. My British and European identities have always pulled me in the same direction, rather than apart," Mrs Ashton said in front of the European Parliament's international trade committee, stressing her role in steering the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty through the House of Lords as proof of her negotiating and consensus building capacities

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The committee will give its recommendation to the plenary session, which is to vote on Wednesday (22 October) on approving her nomination, as the last stage of approval before Mrs Ashton takes over the commission's trade portfolio.

Seeming confident about getting the approval, Mrs Ashton said her first trip on Wednesday after a positive vote would be to the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva, in order to meet Pascal Lamy, the WTO secretary general and ensure him "that a successful Doha round remains absolutely central to EU trade policy." The Doha Round was launched in the Qatari capital in 2001, with the aim of liberalising trade rules for the benefit of developing countries.

Baroness Ashton rejected French proposals to reform the structure of the WTO through measures such as removing sensitive agricultural issues from the negotiations.

"It's not the moment to renegotiate the structure," she said. "What we've got to do is make the structure that exists work to our advantage."

Need for a 'big hitter,' not a 'novice'

Yet some MEPs were critical of Mrs Ashton's qualifications for such a difficult job. UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who was approved by the European plenum to retake his seat on the trade committee on the same day when Mrs Ashton's hearing took place, asked her if she wouldn't have preferred a different portfolio, as she "clearly lacks" the necessary qualifications for this one.

"We are still in the middle of a ruinous credit crunch, there is a rapid contraction of global trade and as history is teaching us, we may have protectionism around the corner," he said, arguing that the EU trade commissioner is "the most important figure in the world for global trade."

"Now it's not the time for a novice, we need a big hitter. Frankly, looking at your CV, you do not have any direct relevant experience to take on this job at what is a very very dangerous time," Mr Farage said.

Mrs Ashton, a former economist, defended her record as a negotiator while stressing that she has "hundreds of very experienced people" working on the trade portfolio at her disposal.

"I am a negotiator, this is what I do. I may not have had the profile of the now newly ennobled Lord Mandelson, but that does not mean I have got no experience. Quite the contrary," she said.

On job creation and market access for small and medium-sized enterprises, Ignasi Guardans Cambo, Spanish Liberal MEP and vice-president of the trade committee said that when he read Mrs Ashton's written answers, "it looked as if we were at the start of the way, as if we were re-inventing the wheel."

Asked by Mr Cambo if she was going to "jump on the train which is already running" and implement specific measures proposed by the European Parliament, the commissioner designate said she would do this, as far as "the carriage doesn't need any repair."

Questions about trade with Eastern neighbours

In regards to the perspective of creating a free trade zone with EU's eastern neighbours such as Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova without damaging their economies, Mrs Ashton only echoed the questions put by Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Polish conservative MEP and chairman of the foreign affairs committee also present at the hearings.

"These are some of the questions I've been reflecting on myself. I do think it's important to develop strategic relationships with our Eastern neighbours and I know we have started discussions with Ukraine and Georgia, with different stages of our deliberations," Mrs Ashton said, admitting that she doesn't have a deep answer to those questions yet.

She also refused to answer Swedish conservative MEP Christofer Fjellner's question on whether it is appropriate to lift tariffs for Georgia as a sign of solidarity with this country in the aftermath of its conflict with Russia.

"I had when I was a justice minister the privilege of meeting a number of ministers from Georgia and talking with them. We need to consider very carefully our relationships with that country and with the region," she said.

Baroness Ashton was put forward for the trade job after the surprise resignation of the UK's previous commissioner, Peter Mandelson, in order to re-join the British government.

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