Ashton underwent a two-hour grilling by MEPs on Wednesday (2 December), defending her controversial nomination as the EU's first foreign affairs chief under the Lisbon Treaty.
But this will not prevent her from facing further, possibly more significant scrutiny in mid-January, ahead of a parliamentary vote on the Barroso II team scheduled for 26 January.
According to the procedure agreed by parliamentary bosses, Ashton had to answer groups of questions in four-minute spans, which did not in fact leave her much time to develop her views. This procedure seemingly helped her to escape a number of difficult and specific questions.
On several occasions, Ashton apologised by saying it was only "day two" of her new office (since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty), and promised to give more precise answers in January.
Many questions related to the European External Action Service (EEAS), a 6,000-strong administration introduced by the Lisbon Treaty which she is expected to lead.
However, at this stage, she said she was working alone. "I don't have anything except me. It's not an excuse, it's just a reality. We're actually still working on what the [Lisbon] Treaty means, in terms of pulling our budget together, what does it mean in the relationship with the rotating [EU] presidency, all of these things are brand new. So I can only say it is not really surprising if I cannot give you a coherent answer," Ashton told MEPs.
'I know where the coffee is'
Among the few concrete details she revealed, Ashton said that she would launch work immediately to create the new service, her objective being to present a proposal that would allow the Council to make a decision by the end of April.
Asked where her offices would be situated, Ashton said the EEAS would have its own building but her office will be in the Commission.
"My office base will be in the Commission building. For two simple reasons: I know where the coffee is, and I know how that building functions, so I don't have to think about the logistics of that. It is also - which is the most important reason - the greatest opportunity not to be in the building, because I will spend the vast majority of my time in the Council building, but also outside Brussels, outside the EU," she said.
Ashton said she had in fact come to the European Parliament "with a blank piece of paper," asking MEPs "to write on it". January will offer a much better opportunity for discussion, she promised.
British MEPs lead attacks on Ashton
While most political groups showed some kindness towards Ashton, she came under a ferocious attack from MEP David Bannerman of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), who asked her if she had taken money from the Soviet bloc countries in the 1980s, when she was working for an anti-nuclear weapons campaign group (see EurActiv 26/11/09). Bannerman asked her to explain why the origins of some of the money collected had not been traced.
Ashton was also attacked by MEP Charles Tannock of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group for not having run for election, as well as by his fellow ECR MEP Geoffrey Van Orden, who asked her whether she would resign if opposition leader David Cameron were to become prime minister in the UK.
Ashton told Bannerman that she had herself ordered an audit at the time the funds were collected. However, she said some of the cash was collected in the street with buckets. "I hope that next time you will ask me a foreign policy question," she told Bannerman.
To Tannock she replied that she had been elected, according to the EU treaties, by EU leaders. "I may not be your choice, but I appear to be theirs," she told Tannock amid applause.
In response to Van Orden, Ashton said his political leader, David Cameron, had been the first one to congratulate her on 19 November. "I still have his voicemail message, if you want to hear it," she added.
Caught out on Nord Stream
On one occasion however, Ashton gave the impression that she was trapped. Lithuanian MEP Vytautas Landsbergis, who was his country's first head of state after independence from the Soviet Union, spoke out against the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline between Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea.
Landsbergis said that along with environmental concerns, the pipeline was to be guarded by the Russian Navy, and asked her to comment. Ashton left the impression that she was unaware of the fact that the pipeline was considered a pan-European project under the EU's 'Trans-European Networks' energy guidelines. Her performance even caused an MEP from her own camp, Hannes Swoboda (S&D, Austria), to intervene and set the record straight.