New UK commissioner vows to rescue trade talks

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The UK’s commissioner-designate Catherine Ashton gave an assured performance during a three-hour grilling at the European Parliament yesterday (20 October), where she promised to rescue global trade talks if approved as the EU’s new trade commissioner.

The hearing took place ahead of a vote in plenary on Wednesday, when she is expected to be confirmed as former Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson’s replacement. Mandelson left the Commission to take up a position in the British government. 

If approved, Ashton said she would pay a visit to WTO chief Pascal Lamy in Geneva, also on Wednesday, to assure him of the EU’s commitment to making the Doha round of trade negotiations a success. The talks aim to lower trade barriers around the world, but the most recent negotiating round, July 23-29, broke down after failing to reach a compromise on agricultural import rules. 

Rejecting the view that the Doha talks had failed, Ashton said the current economic crisis made the global trade deal “more urgent rather than less”. 

“We have to see whether we can put it back on track,” she said. “At a time of economic turbulence we have to redouble our efforts in order to have a deal, and America has an important role to play,” she said.

Although she did not mention his name, her views mirrored recent plans unveiled by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to overcome the world financial crisis, which include the need for a breakthrough at the WTO talks (EURACTIV 15/10/08). 

Ashton, whose full name is Catherine Margaret Ashton, known as Baroness Ashton of Upholland, was made a life peer in 1999. In June 2007, Brown promoted her to the cabinet, giving her the roles of Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council. But she said she would take leave from the Lords for the term of her mandate as commissioner. 

“I hope soon people will call me Cathy, which is what I prefer,” said the commissioner-designate when challenged as to whether she expected others to call her ‘baroness’. 

Several MEPs challenged the fact that Ashton is not as well qualified as her predecessor regarding trade negotiations. Nigel Farage, a eurosceptic British MEP, criticised her nomination to the trade post, saying that as a former undersecretary for education, she lacked experience. 

“We’re in the middle of a credit crunch [and] we may have protectionism” by countries in trade, he told the Parliament. “Now is not the time for the novice, we need a big hitter.” 

But she insisted that she had much negotiating experience, the latest proof of which being her ability to push the Lisbon Treaty through the House of Lords. 

“I am an experienced negotiator who knows how to build bridges,” Ashton said. She also emphasised her strong pro-European position. 

The Party of European Socialists issued a statement following the hearing, praising Ashton for her “high competence”. 

“Baroness Ashton’s approach will put a human face on trade policy. We particularly welcome her commitment to raising living standards, to tackling poverty in the world and to improving EU relations with developing countries […] We are pleased that the appointment of Baroness Ashton will be an historic moment – the first time a woman has been put in charge of Europe’s trade with the rest of the world,” reads the PES statement. 

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