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Ashton gives diplomatic answers

Gavin Hewitt | 18:17 UK time, Monday, 11 January 2010

Catherine Ashton in European Parliament, 11 Jan 10Catherine Ashton is little known in the UK but, if she ever doubted it before, she must have realised today she is now an international figure. For her three-hour questioning in the European Parliament there was a packed debating chamber with banks of cameras.

As Europe's new "foreign minister" the big question that hung over her appointment was her inexperience in foreign affairs. It was clear today she had spent the past five weeks preparing for this hearing.

The most hostile questions came from members of the UK Independence Party and the Conservatives. Lord Dartmouth attacked her for supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). "On the most important foreign affairs and security issues since the second world war," he said, "your judgement has been shown to be demonstrably wrong".

Catherine Ashton was unapologetic. "I am not ashamed of what I am, and who I have been." A Conservative MEP, Charles Tannock, asked her if she was still in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. "I have not been in CND for 27 years," she said. "The situation then is not relevant now."

She was asked whether the war in Iraq was justified. She chose not to answer directly. She said she had been part of a government that had backed the invasion, but she said we are now where we are.

Many of the questions were about the structures of the EU, whether the parliament would get to question any special representatives or ambassadors. The MEPs wanted to ensure they would have scrutiny over the budget for the EU's soon-to-be-created diplomatic service.

There were questions about Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Cuba, Kosovo, the United States etc. She was confident, but sometimes bland and general. It frustrated some MEPs, who demanded to know what her vision was. Afterwards the Greens said "her hearing revealed no sense of vision". But others who had been critical before praised her performance.

Afterwards I asked her which leaders would be called at a moment of international crisis. "I suspect," she said, "in an international crisis a number of phone calls will be made. One of them will be to me."

Soon she will make her first major trip to Washington. Others will follow to the Middle East, Beijing and Moscow. By April she will have to have drawn up plans for a diplomatic service. The hurdle remains a high one, however. Will she and her diplomats really give Europe a bigger voice on the world stage? Or will powers like Britain, Germany and France be reluctant to see their own influence wane?

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