Ashton gives few EU foreign policy clues

BRUSSELS Mon Jan 11, 2010 6:29pm GMT

1 of 2. European External Relations Commissioner-designate Catherine Ashton of Britain arrives to address the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels January 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Thierry Roge

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The new EU foreign affairs chief identified Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iran and Somalia as top of her agenda to the European Parliament on Monday but drew fire for giving few insights into specific policy plans.

Catherine Ashton gave cautious responses during three hours of questioning by the assembly's foreign affairs committee and avoided detailed discussion of issues such as how to tackle Iran over its nuclear programme.

She said that she would visit the Middle East shortly.

But she did not say how she intended to handle any of the European Union's big foreign policy issues.

"I'm trying to be general rather than specific," she said while discussing the Balkans.

She gave little away when asked about the possibility of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, which Tehran denies is intended to develop atomic weapons.

"The issue that will be discussed will be the twin-track approach ... We will also look at what other measures, economic in particular, would be appropriate," she said.

Ashton, who will be responsible for helping set up a new EU diplomatic corps, irked some members of the parliament by saying she did not believe ambassadors in the new service to require the assembly's approval but largely avoided controversy.

She has already taken up her role in the European Commission as high representative for foreign affairs but still had to take part in hearings in the European Parliament, which votes on January 26 on whether to approve the new EU executive.

The parliament can reject the Commission as a whole but cannot throw out individual members of the team chosen by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

QUESTIONS ON CND

Ashton, 53, was trade commissioner in Barroso's last team. She apologised to those who might not have received the answers they hoped for but some committee members applauded her second appearance before parliament.

"Clearly it was a better performance than the last but for me it was missing elements," said Piotr Kaczynski, a European affairs analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies. She gave even fewer strategy details in her December appearance.

"She mentioned the problems but she didn't say how to address them and while she mentioned key words that needed to be mentioned, she wasn't defining specific policy for the EU."

Charles Tannock, a British member of the parliament from the opposition Conservative Party, challenged Ashton -- who is from the governing Labour party -- over her membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s.

He asked how her support for nuclear abolition rested with the fact that two EU member states -- France and Britain -- are nuclear powers.

Ashton said she had worked for CND nearly 30 years ago and did not necessarily hold the same views now as she had held then. It did, however, make her all the more determined to ensure Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons, she said.

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